Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Oh Mildred!


It took some time, finally knocked off watching the 5 part HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. The first three parts were pretty good, the series started strong by kicking straight into the title character giving her cheatin' husband the heave ho. Kate Winslet, always outstanding, puts her American accent to work again portraying Mildred as a strong willed and grounded pre feminist with a major blind spot when it comes to her children. Winslet's Mildred Pierce is as earnest as the day is long. Director Todd Haynes pushes the Depression era setting hard to ensure we feel the uncomfortable fear and strife giving the piece modern day relevance.

Despite being a book first, Mildred Pierce is best known as first rate melodramatic cinema and one of Joan Crawford's best flicks. I remember watching it on video about 20 years ago, mainly what I remember from that experience was thinking the daugther (Veda) was evil as hell. To differ from that legendary version Haynes and Winslet strive to punch up the realism and get room to do it by spreading out over a miniseries.

It's just too bad the rest of the cast didn't get the same memo. The supporting cast (including Oscar winner Melissa Leo, Mare Winningham, Guy Pierce and two different actresses playing daughter Veda) amp up the drama with snappy performances. The zip of the support actors make Winslet / Haynes seem like a major drag. Watching this show you'd think everyone had fun during the Great Depression except Mildred Pierce.

Nowhere is this disconnect more evident than the key relationship between Mildred Pierce and the daughter Veda (played the first 3 eps by an actress I don't know whose acting has been very controversial online and the last 2 eps by Evan Rachel Wood). The Veda character is always haughty, conniving and stuck up regardless of who is playing her. In the HBO version she is so much so that Kate Winslet's Mildred doesn't even seem related to her. Even though both characters ramble on in heated arguments at the end of most episodes about how much alike they are, it never feels like it's true. Veda's character comes off like someone Mildred got stuck babysitting instead of mothering. Since much of the 2nd half of the series focuses on Mildred's smothering and Veda's viper like qualities, the lack of connection kills off the drama.

And that's why I took a break watching between parts 3 and 4. The story was getting predictable and the mother / daughter relationship that held most the drama wasn't clicking. As the series progresses and you see Mildred, who you're rooting for at this point, repeatedly get put down and faked out by her demon seed daughter you just get wore out. Or at least I did. By parts 4 and 5 even the surrounding characters are sick of watching this trainwreck relationship and exclaim "Oh Mildred!" constantly when she turns a blind eye to Veda's shenanigans.

Because the supporting actors are so appealing no matter how sketched out they are, I came away wishing Haynes had gone the full remake route of complete melodrama. Instead we're left with Kate Winslet proving an unusual thesis: Is it possible to give a terrific lead acting performance that sabotages the piece as a whole? With her humorless nose pressed against the grindstone, the answer is as easy as Mildred Pierce's pies.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

You Just Got Blazed!

Syfy channel has resurrected Star Blazers! This classic anime series recalls warm memories of watching it on the local program Captain Cosmic and his robot 2t2. I don't remember a lot about Star Blazers itself, just that I used to watch it daily. The giant battleship Yamato with the big cannon on the front would fly around and stuff would blow up. When you're a kid, that's all that really matters. Now I get a chance to see it and maybe understand what all the running and shouting was all about.

While looking up Star Blazers on the internet, found out a live action version of this was made in Japan. The trailer looks like Armageddon and Battlestar Galactica gone wild.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

You Can't Handle R -Truth!

Yesterday wrestler R Truth turned heel (bad guy) and to prove his point (that he's now a bad guy) he smoked a cigarette over his defeated enemy. When I saw this, I thought it was the lamest heel turn I'd ever seen. I get that it's illegal to smoke a cigarette indoors and that it's not healthy and all that, I really do. But is that the mark of a true villian? Does anyone think another person is badass for smoking a cigarette past the 6th grade? What dasdardly deed will R Truth do next, pull those tags off pillows that say it's illegal to remove? Ring a strangers door bell and run away before the door is opened?? Crank call a random phone number and ask if their refrigerator is running??? Yes, watching a wrestler try to inflict damage on another grappler by subjecting him to second hand smoke from a single cigarette was stupidity on an epic level.

And then someone or some anti smoking group (was it The Truth?) bothered to complain about it pushing the event to TMZ worthy status. Whaddya know, the smoking gimmick worked (the...smoking...gun? Haw haw). Proving once again that Vince McMahon is a genius, spinning a wrestling show storyline into a mass media story.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Thank You Edge!

This week WWE Superstar Edge officially retired from wrestling due to his injuries sustained in the ring. For as long as I've followed wrestling, Edge has been a part of it. He has progressed in that time from a Tag Team Champion to a World Champion thanks to awesome mic skills, strong work ethic and all around in ring ability. Edge was versatile and pretty much great at everything he did in wrestling. The rare wrestler who could be equally convincing as the noble good guy or the scheming baddie (though most of his career tilted towards the latter) and be over with fans no matter what. I stopped watching wrestling regularly around the time his World Championship and Rated R Superstar gimmick took off. Still, when I did watch I knew Edge could be relied upon to bring a great show. Edge provided unforgettable WWE moments like the mid air spear during Tables Ladders and Chairs, the conchairtos and the stealing of Lita from Matt Hardy. So thank you Edge, thank you for the entertainment.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Keepin' It REO

I'm on an REO Speedwagon kick which happens to me every now and then I think of them. So the time is now to post about them. But what can I say about this band that I haven't said many times before? Well I don't know, one thing that did strike me though is that REO Speedwagon is a band that likes to "keep" doing things. They use that word a lot. Maybe that's why they've kept on keeping on, this band has been going nonstop for as longer than I've been alive. To be playing over four decades they must know something. So let's see what REO says they (and by extension, us) should "keep" doing to .

Keep Pushin' (1976)
REO's first lesson to us is that you have to keep pushin' on. The band was probably in need of some motivational sloganism after five albums scraped up a meager sum of hits. Songwriter/lead singer Kevin Cronin had already quit a few albums before returning to deliver his life lesson. "Keep Pushin" sounds like it's all about touring, surviving that hard cold mistress known as The Road. Cronin writes about how life is lonely and crazy but you have to keep going even though all your strength is gone 'cause that's what makes you a man. Lesson One from REO: you must keep pushin'. On.

Keep On Loving You (1980)
Maybe the definitive REO Speedwagon song, this majestic power ballad has been all over the place for 30 years now. It's considered a romantic song even though the lyrics really seem to be about reconciliation after being cheated on. Again from the pen of Kevin Cronin, the song paints the girl (the "you" of the song) as a snake in the grass who's had all these men Cronin (the "I" of the song) knows about but can't remember. Then Cronin ("I") declares his undying love that is so great he has insomnia. Or maybe that part about not wanting to sleep was the sex metaphor. You and your metaphors Kevin Cronin!

When you get down to brass taxes (whatever that means) what grabs people is the nice piano intro and the melodic chorus making "Keep On Loving You" seem like a pure love song. I wonder if this song has ever been played at weddings? I'm gonna keep on loving you-ew-ooh, even though you did it with the Best Maa-ah-han!

"Keep On Loving You" is the one REO song that really keeps on keeping on. I still hear it in movie soundtracks and covers and what not. I think REO must have gotten bored performing it because in '89 they made this fun goofball reggae version which strips out all meaning from the tune but is good for a chuckle. It's also the song that gets the most cover versions from their catalog, a lot of terrible terrible covers.

Bonus on the music video, it's a nice throwback to when video was new and singers were forced to try acting. Or as Jon Lovitz would say "ACTING!"

Lesson Two from REO: You must keep lovin'.
Keep The Fire Burnin' (1983)
The last chapter of the REO Speedwagon "keep" trilogy, a sort of forgotten song from their history. Although "Keep The Fire Burnin" was a Top 10 hit the band has virtually ignored it since '83. Maybe because it's a lazy rewrite of "Roll With The Changes"? On the Decade Of Rock And Roll 1981 - 1991 album Cronin tells the audience he wrote the song next to a fireplace which makes a lot of sense with all its talk of staying warm. This song was recorded as part of the follow up to their smash success Hi Infidelity so there's a lot of lyrics about things changing and keeping the faith. Often felt a bit like Yoda with phrases like "Let us not stop learning" or "Let us never lose our yearnin". Though I guess Yoda would really say "Learnin', we must stop never" if I'm being grammatically Jedi. Aw, listen to me go on like a youngling.

Did I mention this is my favorite REO song? Lesson three: Keep Burnin'.

To review, let's have a test. Select from the following the three things REO Speedwagon insists you must keep doing (preferably with a "n' at the end": Burnin', Chafin', Scrapin', Poundin', Peelin', Pushin', Tannin', Baldin', Crappin', Fightin', Runnin', Movin', Eatin', Drivin', Likin', Enjoyin', Lovin', Touchin', Squeezin', Fartin', Barfin', Pukin', Hurlin', Rammin', Jammin' or Crammin'.

The Answer Is After the Jump

If you chose Pushin', Lovin' and Burnin' you're correct! And probably a little kinky.

Oh, one last thing for the confused people who post comments at You Tube. REO Speedwagon did not do "Eye Of The Tiger". Survivor does not do "Open Arms". Foreigner does not do "Carry On Wayward Son". Journey does not do "Dust In The Wind". And that's my rant for today.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Raphael Saadiq Is Good, Man

Was kicking back checking out music vids today lots of entertaining ones out there, this one caught me by surprise and blew me away. Love retro soul done right.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Crystal Vision


Pia Toscano's rejection from American Idol this week pretty much sank any hope of a female contestant making it to the finals this year. With that in mind, thought I would take the time to review the album from the last girl to make it to the big show: Crystal Bowersox Farmer's Daughter.

On the show, Bowersox came across as a folky combo of Bonnie Raitt / Melissa Etheridge style classic rock and street corner busker. She seemed a bit ragged, a bit dirty not in a nasty way but in an "I've been places and seen some stuff" way. Not squeeky clean like how many American Idol contestants come across on the show, ready to flash their ultra whites preening through yet another take on "Against All Odds". Maybe it was the dreadlocks?

True to recent American Idol history, a finale came about squaring off the most artistically talented contestant versus a fairly talented but pleasant guy that tweens can latch on to. In this case Bowersox versus the everyman Lee DeWyze. And despite totally mopping up the floor with DeWyze in the finale performance showdown peaking with an emotional read of "Up To The Mountain", Bowersox lost. But as they like to say on the internet, maybe it's for the best so that the 2nd place person doesn't have all those restrictive handlers when making their record-sorry, album...I mean CD...er download.

So how does Crystal Bowersox fare? She fares OK. Bowersox does get to do a fair chunk of her own writing (with the exception of the pandering Nickelback/Kara Dioguardi composition "Hold On") and sings with conviction. Much of the likeable rough edges of her music has been sanded off to a commercial sheen and with it her true grit. A great example is "Holy Toledo" which when excerpted as an acoustic guitar song on American Idol came across as Dylanish hearing it getting transformed into a Myley Cyrus "The Climb" soundalike is a mild disappointment.

The first half of the album sounds like it's more programmed for mass acceptance as "Toledo", "Hold On", the lead single "Farmer's Daughter" and the made for some future chick flick soundtrack theme song"Ridin With The Radio". Plus a pleasant cover of Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" for those who hadn't heard her do enough cover songs on AI. At least the whistle happy "Lonely Won't Come Around" retains some of her simple direct charm.

The second half shows more of Bowersox's Raitt / Etheridge influence to better effect. She sounds more at home pulling out the blues mama stops backed by an Allman Brothers style groove, blasts of cool organ and piercing guitar breaks. The songs I like the most on the disc, the punchy "Kiss Ya" and the blues rock ballad "Speak Now" show up here.

Farmer's Daughter is, hopefully, as commercial as Bowersox gets. And as it is it ain't bad. But I get the feeling there's more talent there waiting to be exposed. She has shown a willingness to explore personal issues (like parental abandonment in the title song) and political as well (albeit VERY mildly in the form of the Buffalo Springfield cover). With a little less calculation and a little more of the heart-on-her-sleeve straight shooting she did on the show, her music could get interesting.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Rock Rock "Til You Drop


Sunday I went with my Mom to the city to see the Broadway spawned rock musical Rock Of Ages. A play set in the late 80s on Los Angeles famed Sunset Strip featuring characters breaking into fist pumping rock anthems and flick your bic power ballads. I knew little about the show going in other than it starred American Idol alum Constantine Margoulis (did I spell that right? I might have that spelling confused with that girl from ER that's now on The Good Wife. I'm just going to go with Constantine as his name-o). So I had minimal expectations as I settled in my seat at the fancy Curran theatre.

Rock Of Ages turned out to be a lot of fun, played out with equal parts honest passion and nostalgiac snark. Like the simple themes of the songs they cover, the story runs through infatuation, love lost, and love found amid naive dreams and big city sleaze. Focusing on the parallel lives of an aspiring rocker and an aspiring actress while evil developers threaten to destroy the Sunset Strip, the story is as basic as a two part episode of Saved By The Bell. Clearly knowing this, the play is packed with 80s pop culture references (wine coolers!) and narrated by a hard rock goofball. When the narrator breaks out Playwriting For Dummies to read the instructions on how to end the first half of the show, you know this isn't meant to be serious.

But the story isn't the real value here anyway, it's just there to set up situations where easily licensed songs can be used to dramatic effect. And used dramatically well they are with close attention paid to lyrics to ensure it fits the characters / moments perfectly. Moments like when the girl character turns to stripping to the tune of Quarterflash's "Harden My Heart" or when the boy and girl duet their lost dreams to Damn Yankee's "High Enough" allow the music and drama to gel perfectly. Interesting themes develop in song selection with Twisted Sister representing rockin' attitude, Foreigner meaning sex and REO Speedwagon backing male affection. Plus three Journey / Steve Perry songs!

The cast is sharp and thoroughly strong from top to bottom. Constantine Maroulis shows he still has that rock star wail. And maybe because he's playing a character that annoyingly hollow brooding frozen stare he used to do on AI is replaced with likeable, Hugh Grant style stammering. I didn't catch the other names of the actors, but from the lead girl character Sherrie, the David Lee Roth style rock star, to the Berkeley protest hippie to the dasdarly fey German developers all roles are filled memorably.

Rock Of Ages succeeds in bringing back an era when music was loud, fun and tamely naughty. Sort of like a two hour version of Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield" music video. It's interesting in how the play can command ticket prices that none of the original artists can these days. Anyway, none of it is monumental but it's not meant to be. Like the taped David Coverdale intro to the play, Rock Of Ages is fun served up with a knowing wink and an unabashed smile.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Jenny Jenny, Who Can She Turn To?


and a half

Jenny is a 16 year old British bird who's smart as a whip and dreaming of the boho high life in 1961. She's bored by her mundane teenage school life and pressured by her family's expectations for her to attend Oxford. One day standing out in the rain with her cello, Jenny is offered a ride by a flashy wealthy stranger who decides to show her the life she's desired: art, travel, music, etc. But he is mysterious. He has SECRETS. What can they be and will they matter? Will she be seduced by the good life? Questions!

The movie is called An Education. Jenny is winningly portrayed by actress Carey or Casey Mulligan, I can't remember her exact name. Anywhoo she's really good in this movie evoking a strong mix of intellegence, wistful romanticism and naivete'. All acting in this piece is universally strong in a cast that includes Albert Molina and Peter Saarsgaard (I think I misspelled the last name there). Saarsgaard plays the mysterious wealty stranger who takes Jenny into the jet set life style and does an excellent job too.

An Education also has a great sense of period including a comment on the limited opportunities afforded women at the time. While An Education is not an important film of major consequence, it is a well made fully observed study of what could easily have been a Lifetime movie character.