Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Best Music of 2007

The best new albums I bought in 2007 were:

Paul McCartney, "Memory Almost Full," a brilliant collection showing that McCartney is still at the top of his game. His solo work since 1993's "Off the Ground" has been very high quality, even when measured against his impressive back catalogue. I really believe that Paul McCartney is one of the greatest composers ever. Hundreds of years from now, he and John Lennon will be remembered as two of the great musical geniuses of the 20th century.

Nick Lowe, "At My Age," a super album with not a bit of filler among the 12 tracks, more people need to know about this vastly underrated singer/songwriter! Lowe is a bit similar to Paul McCartney and Ray Davies of the Kinks, he crafts gorgeous melodies and little vignettes, like short stories in miniature. (Note: I think part of the reason the Beatles worked so well is because John and Paul were such different writers. This is an oversimplification, but it's generally true, that Paul writes little story-songs with a cast of characters, and John wrote painfully lacerating autobiographical songs. Taken together, these two gifts complimented each other perfectly in the group.) Anyway, if you like Paul and the Kinks, you would definitely like Nick Lowe.

Dave Brubeck, "Indian Summer," recorded in January, 2007, an 86-year-old Brubeck shows that he still has the chops on this solo piano album. It's simply astonishing that Brubeck is this good at this age. His playing hasn't lost anything over the years. The disc is a mixture of standards and originals, and even includes a version of his alma mater's anthem, "Pacific Hail." (Brubeck's alma mater is the College of the Pacific.) My favorite song on the album is probably "Thank You," a song he wrote in 1958 for his Quartet. I'm a huge fan of Dave Brubeck, he's a great player and composer and also a great man.

Harry Connick Jr., "Oh, My Nola," buy this album! Connick is one of the most talented musicians around, he really is the heir to Bobby Darin's musical legacy. Like Darin, Connick writes songs, can sing just about any song in any genre, can act, is a dynamite showman, and is also a gifted instrumentalist. (Connick is a much better piano player than Darin was, but Bobby was still pretty good. And not many people are better at playing piano than Harry!) Connick also writes the arrangements for most of his albums. Yeah, he's a little bit impressive. Why is Michael Buble such a big deal??? I like Buble, but he has a very narrow range of talent. Connick simply blows him out of the water, there's no comparison. Yet when the New York Times reviewed a Buble concert this year, they favorably compared Buble to Connick! I think the reason is that people with a very narrow talent range can be very successful because people know what they are getting. Buble picks songs that are overly familiar, to the point where he really can't compete with the original version. But I think people pick up the Buble CD and say, "Oh, I know those songs, I'll buy this." They pick up a Harry Connick CD and say, "Oh, I don't know those songs, I'll put this back." People like Connick and Darin have a difficult time in the marketplace sometimes because they are so talented and so versatile, people can't just put them in one box. And we like to be able to put entertainers in a certain box. Singers get "typecast," much the same way that actors do.

Anyway, back to the album! Harry's album is a love song to New Orleans, the city where he was born and bred. It's a mixture of all kinds of different musical styles, just like a Jambalaya of great tunes! Sorry, that was cheesy...from the opening of Working in the Coal Mine to the closing Do Dat Thing, you will be vastly entertained by one of the very best. This CD is a great showcase for all of Harry's talent, his singing, piano playing, songwriting, and arranging. If you already like Harry Connick, you need to pick this CD up. If you don't know if you like Harry Connick, give this a listen. I think you'll dig it.

Saturday, December 15, 2007


The 1968 sex farce "Candy" is one of those movies that must have seemed dated about six months after it came out. Based on the scandalous novel by Terry Southern and Mason Hoffenberg, it starred the unknown Swedish teenager Ewa Aulin, in her Hollywood debut. (Given the content, it's a bit disturbing that she was just 18 when this was made.) Candy is basically a version of Candide, but with a female protagonist, and updated for the swinging 60's, baby. The film follows Candy on a picaresque series of adventures with a number of men, who all want to sleep with her. John Astin, most famous of course as Gomez Addams on the Addams Family, gives a good dual supporting performance as Candy's father and uncle.

The first man in question is Richard Burton as the drunk poet McPhisto, who has a wind machine constantly blowing his hair, even indoors. Burton's performance is the best in the film, as he effortlessly sends up his own reputation as a boozy ladies' man with a penchant for poetry. It's one of the few times Burton actually got to be funny on screen.

Then Ringo Starr shows up as, yes, you guessed it, a Mexican gardener! Oh about total miscasting! It's just painful to think that Ringo actually took time away from the Beatles to do this! But he quickly disappears, and next up is...Walter Matthau as a gung ho Army leader, very similar to Keenan Wynn's Col. Bat Guano in Dr. Strangelove, also by Terry Southern. Matthau's performance is another highlight, as he nails the blustery demeanor of the John Wayne-like military commander. But the story starts to lose steam, and it's all downhill from we see James Coburn as a doctor with a bit of a God complex...and how can you not like James Coburn? But the sequence is overly long, although Rolling Stones fans should be on the lookout for Anita Pallenberg as Coburn's nurse. She was Brian Jones's girlfriend, and then Keith stole her from Brian. Keith and Anita had a son together, Dandelion, aka Marlon. Apparently some people in the Stones' camp thought that Anita was a witch...anyway...back to the film...

Charles Aznavour has a pointless role as a hunchback...and then, finally, as our reward for making it this far into the film, we get...wait for it...Marlon Brando as a fake guru! Brando's performance caps off the film. His performance is indulgent, eccentric, and knowingly self-aware, which of course means that it's a perfect late-Brando performance. Using these qualifications, late Brando is just about anything after Guys and Dolls. Seriously, Brando is great, and you'll be amazed at how thin he was! He's tiny! How did he ever get so big??? Brando had such a reservoir of goodwill stored up from his early roles that he never quite extinguished it in his lifetime, try as he might to do so. It was always enjoyable to see him, no matter what he did or how weird he was.

The ending of Candy makes no sense, of course, and why should it? Candy is led to an underground temple, and the man who led her there, who is obscured by white body paint, starts to caress her. In the creepiest moment of the film, the man is revealed to be none other than Candy's father. Ick! What that's supposed to mean, I have no idea, other than ick! Gross! Anyway, after that, Candy frolics on a grassy hill with all the members of the cast, whilst some "groovy" music plays in the background...all of which bears an uncanny resemblance to the ending of the 40-Year-Old Virgin! I'm not kidding, see for yourself! Also, watch for Brando's crucifixion pose at the end, which was something of a trademark for him, (see One-Eyed Jacks, when he gets whipped, and the Young Lions, when he's shot) it's typical Brando self-indulgence, and probably a small clue as to how he saw himself.

Aulin is actually pretty good as Candy, although the role really calls for more reacting than actual acting...she doesn't have even a trace of a Swedish accent, so casting her as an American teenager was not a stretch. Aulin was certainly attractive enough to play the part, she wears her miniskirts well.

So what is the point of Candy? I suppose the message is, don't trust authority, man, cause it will use you for your hot Swedish body, man. Authority will always try to screw you, haha? Don't trust drunken poets, Mexican gardeners, the military, doctors, hunchbacks, avant-grade filmmakers, and gurus, I guess. Hey, wise words. Oh, another of the hideously dated aspects of Candy is the intro and outro, which are outer-space shots, as we slowly pan into and back from the Earth. Which might be cool if it weren't a total rip-off of 2001: A Space Odyssey, released earlier in 1968.

Alexander the Not-So-Great

I finally watched my copy of "Alexander the Great," from 1956, starring Richard Burton this week. And I was disappointed. Robert Rossen, the man who directed "The Hustler," wrote, produced, and directed Alexander, and he has a lot to answer for. How did he turn Alexander the Great's life story into a boring hodge-podge? Why are there so many ludicrously short scenes? Why did he make Burton wear a ridiculous blond wig? (It's seriously bad, it's in kind of a pompadour-looking style, it looks like a squirrel crawled on his head and died.) Why are the battle scenes so amazingly unimpressive? Okay, the last battle scene was decent for a 50's spectacle, but the two others are so bad! All we see are about 50 guys on one side of a river charging towards 50 guys on the other side...boring!

The story makes the mistake of following Alexander literally from the cradle to the grave, all in 2 hours and 15 minutes. (Which will feel like 3 hours plus, trust me.) Alexander doesn't even gain power until halfway through the movie. And then in the last half hour, the pace picks up and we zoom through the rest of his life. (Some of this speeding up is achieved through a graceless voiceover and montage, kind of a like a Movie-Tone News for the B.C. era. "And then he conquered all of the known world!") So the beginning of the film is too slow, and the end is too fast. What Rossen really should have done was pick a key time in Alexander's life and focus on that, instead of trying to cram everything in. It feels like Rossen ran out of time and money and suddenly realized he still had 10 years of Alexander's life to cover.

Burton, one of my all-time favorite actors, gives a good performance, but he's not given much to work with. Alexander seems curiously friendless, no character follows him through the whole movie, which doesn't help the disjointed feeling. But Burton was a kind of loner on screen, an existentialist, if you will. In all of his films, Burton's characters are almost always on their own. They have very few male friends, and almost never have any family that appear on screen. (An exception is "The Robe," where Burton actually has a father.) He was always somewhat aloof, remote, in his own world, just as Claire Bloom tells Alexander in the movie. Burton is commanding as Alexander, and towards the end, when Alexander is convinced of his own Godliness, quite compelling.

Burton and Rossen seem to have gotten along well, Burton did tons of research for the role, and they spent many hours discussing the age of Alexander. (You'd think Burton would have talked him out of the wig...) Burton loved The Hustler, and apparently quoted liberally from it whilst playing pool. Now that would have been something to see! Another Burton moment I wish I could have witnessed was Burton regaling Ringo Starr with a dramatic delivery of "I Am the Walrus," when Starr visited Burton's yacht. Another good one was the poetry contest he got into with Bobby Kennedy. They started quoting Shakespeare at a party, and challenging the other with various soliloquies and sonnets. Kennedy matched Burton line for line, but Burton finally "won" by reciting a sonnet backwards! Can you imagine any politician now being able to quote Shakespeare line for line? Somehow I think that George W. Bush might lack this ability...

I forget how striking Burton's eyes were until I see him in a color film. Alexander was filmed in Spain, and as Burton stands against the brilliantly blue Spanish sky, I noticed that his eyes actually match the color of the sky! Wow.

Anyway, unless you're a Burton fanatic, like myself, Alexander the Great is really nothing special, unfortunately.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Bye Bye, Torii

Well, with Torii Hunter signing with the Angels for $90 million, the Twins have surely saved enough money to continue their pursuit of A-Rod! They can probably offer A-Rod as much as $7 million a year! Haha...kidding aside, it's sad to see Torii go, but I can't really blame him. $90 million dollars for playing a game is ridiculous money. That's setting up every single one of your relatives and offspring for many, many generations. That's starting a kajillion foundations to do charitable work. That's more than the GNP of some countries. My prediction is that Torii will have two or three really good years with the Angels, and then taper off. He's a little old to be offering a 5-year deal to. The scuttlebutt is that the Twins offered him $45 million for 3 years, but he wanted a longer deal.

Anyway, as the Twins prepare to deal Johan Santana, all I can say is, let the rebuilding begin! It'll be fun opening the new stadium in 2010 with Joe Mauer and...all those other guys who will be, um...Nick Punto? I just hope the Twins get some good players for Santana. I'm glad the Twins traded Matt Garza, simply for the fact that I can't stand watching him pitch on TV! He always looks like he just tasted something really gross, or he has peanut butter on the roof of his mouth, so he's always flicking his tongue, it's very strange. And he does this literally all the time, like he has OCD or something. Take your tongue flicking to Tampa Bay, Matt Garza!

House of the Prisoner?

Is Hugh Laurie the new Patrick McGoohan? The more I watch "House," the more similarities I see between Laurie's Dr. House and McGoohan's Number 6 from the classic 60's TV show "The Prisoner." Laurie and McGoohan bear more than a passing resemblance to each other, which is what started my thinking about this. McGoohan was roughly the same age as Laurie was when "House" started, and an essential part of both characters is their age. They are not young men, they have seen the ups and downs of life. The physical resemblance that strikes me the most is their brilliantly blue eyes. Laurie does this thing where he puts his head slightly down, and just stares intensely with those eyes, it reminds me of so many moments in "The Prisoner" where McGoohan has exactly the same look on his face.

The characters share a completely anti-authoritarian philosophy, Number 6 for a clearer reason than House. They both use their sardonic humor to put down those in power. As House has Dr. Cuddy to constantly annoy him, so Number 6 is always matching wits and doing battle with Number 2. (How about a different Dr. Cuddy each week?) And although House ostensibly has his freedom, unlike Number 6, who is forced to remain in the Village, House is just as much a prisoner of his own narcissistic, poisoned worldview as Number 6 is. House has built his own prison, and however miserable he claims to be, he makes no attempt to escape it, unlike Number 6, who is always seeking a way out of the Village. One of the themes articulated by the last episode of "The Prisoner" is that we all are in a prison of our own making, no matter how comfortable it might seem to be. (That's all I'll say without giving too much of the last episode away.)

Those are all the similarities that spring immediately to mind, I know this isn't totally fleshed out, but I wanted to get this down before I forget it all.