Friday, December 31, 2010

New Years Resolutions

We all make 'em, we all break 'em. I believe that it's because we resolve to do things that we cannot or, deep down, do not want to achieve. Sure, I could resolve to be a better person (too vague), lose weight (bacon's too tasty), or quit smoking (I'd have to start first), but what would be the point? Just because I say I'm going to do it on New Years, doesn't mean that I'd have the will to keep up that resolution all year.

So this year, I will pick a New Years resolution that I know I can keep, because I want to keep it. And also, because there is no work involved. Well, no work that isn't fun, I should say.

This upcoming year, 2011, I resolve to read the following books:

  • The Neverending Story by Michael Ende
  • Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
  • The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon
  • The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
  • Life by Keith Richards
  • Nothing Left to Burn by Jay Varner
  • Doctor Who: The Writer's Tale by Russel T. Davies
  • A History of Britain Vol I by Simon Sharma
  • The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
Why twelve? Well, there's twelve months in a year, so one book a month seems a sensible goal. Though it's not like I can't read them all at once if I want to, or, for that matter, won't read anything else. Anyway, I've picked mostly books that I've bought and haven't yet got around to reading. It looks like a nice mix of fiction from the classics (Bronte) to the contemporary (Pynchon), non-fiction from the culturally relevant (Friedan) to my personal interests (Davies), and memoir from the highly literary (Varner) to the questionably accurate (Richards). And of course, lots of sci-fi/fantasy.

So, to those of you who have trouble keeping your New Years resolutions, why don't you join me in my experiment. Come up with your own list of 12 books to read next year. Or vow to see a play or visit a different gallery every month. Go to 12 concerts of performers you've never heard of. Watch 12 foreign films or silent classics. And so on.

These may not exactly be "conventional" New Years resolutions, but art can improve and enrich our lives just as much as diet and exercise.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

British Actor of the Month--Halloween Edition

I haven't blogged for months, and let's not even mention how long it's been since I've done British Actor of the Month, so I thought I'd better do one now before I get caught up in NaNoWriMo. And, who better to, shall we say, bring this feature back from the grave than

Christopher Lee

Lee will forever be remembered for playing the eponymous Count in Hammer Studios series of Dracula movies. The first film, a Technicolor reboot of Universal's take on Stoker's novel, was good though a little campy. The sequels get exponentially cheesier, but Lee's performance, which finds the right blend of suave, sexy sophistication and mise en mastication, saves the films from being really bad instead of just pretty bad. The chemistry between him and real life BFF Peter Cushing as Van Helsing in several of the films is the highlight of the series.

However, Lee played other villains for Hammer as well, including the Creature in Curse of Frankenstein and the Mummy in, well, I'm sure you can figure that one out. But, arguably, his best role (and Hammer's best film) was in the cult classic The Wicker Man where he played the affably evil (or morally gray area-ed, depending on your point of view) Lord Summerile, leader of a Scottish island that still follows the old ways.

Contemporary audience might recognize Lee from his role as Saruman in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. That's cool in and of itself, but Lee is a huge LotR fan himself since he reads it at least once a year and has actually met Tolkien. Now that's some serious nerd cred!

Normally I'm loathe to admit that the Star Wars prequels exist, but I have to mention Lee's role as Count Dooku (An evil count whose name begins with "D." I wonder where they got that idea?) in Episode II and III. Which is pretty cool in and of itself, but it gets cooler when you find out he did his own sword, er, light-saber work. And did I mention that he was in his 80s when he made the last movie?

Sure, you probably know that Lee played Bond villain Francisco Scaramanga in The Man with the Golden Gun, but did you know that he was in a super-secret special ops unit in World War II? Or that his cousin is Ian Fleming? That's right, Christopher Lee may very well be the real-life inspiration for James Bond.

Finally, Lee has one of the most distinctive voices in cinema. His rich, commanding tones have made him a voice-over staple for cartoons and video games like Kingdom Hearts. Plus, it makes him easy to spot in his many Tim Burton cameos and adds that little something extra to all the roles listed above. Apparently, he can sing, too, and has recorded a heavy metal concept album.

I'd like to wish all my readers a happy Halloween. Whether you're out trick-or-treating or bar crawling this night, stay safe. Don't accidentally cut yourself and bleed on unconsecrated ground. You never know who--or what--may have been staked there.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Banned Books Week will soon be upon us again. Restricting access to books and other works of art is one of the sneakiest--and most dangerous--attacks on your freedom. Here is the ALA's new list of the 100 most challenged books of the last decade.

1 Harry Potter (series), by J.K. Rowling
2 Alice series, by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
3 The Chocolate War, by Robert Cormier
4 And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson/Peter Parnell
5 Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck
6 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou
7 Scary Stories (series), by Alvin Schwartz
8 His Dark Materials (series), by Philip Pullman
9 TTYL; TTFN; L8R, G8R (series), by Myracle, Lauren
10 The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky
11 Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers
12 It’s Perfectly Normal, by Robie Harris
13 Captain Underpants (series), by Dav Pilkey
14 The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
15 The Bluest Eye, by Toni Morrison
16 Forever, by Judy Blume
17 The Color Purple, by Alice Walker
18 Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
19 Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
20 King and King, by Linda de Haan
21 To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
22 Gossip Girl (series), by Cecily von Ziegesar
23 The Giver, by Lois Lowry
24 In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak
25 Killing Mr. Griffen, by Lois Duncan

26 Beloved, by Toni Morrison
27 My Brother Sam Is Dead, by James Lincoln Collier
28 Bridge To Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson

29 The Face on the Milk Carton, by Caroline B. Cooney
30 We All Fall Down, by Robert Cormier
31 What My Mother Doesn’t Know, by Sonya Sones
32 Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya
33 Snow Falling on Cedars, by David Guterson
34 The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big, Round Things, by Carolyn Mackler
35 Angus, Thongs, and Full Frontal Snogging, by Louise Rennison
36 Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
37 It’s So Amazing, by Robie Harris
38 Arming America, by Michael Bellasiles
39 Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane
40 Life is Funny, by E.R. Frank
41 Whale Talk, by Chris Crutcher
42 The Fighting Ground, by Avi
43 Blubber, by Judy Blume
44 Athletic Shorts, by Chris Crutcher
45 Crazy Lady, by Jane Leslie Conly
46 Slaughterhouse-Five, by Kurt Vonnegut
47 The Adventures of Super Diaper Baby, by George Beard
48 Rainbow Boys, by Alex Sanchez
49 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey
50 The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini
51 Daughters of Eve, by Lois Duncan
52 The Great Gilly Hopkins, by Katherine Paterson
53 You Hear Me?, by Betsy Franco
54 The Facts Speak for Themselves, by Brock Cole
55 Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Green
56 When Dad Killed Mom, by Julius Lester
57 Blood and Chocolate, by Annette Curtis Klause
58 Fat Kid Rules the World, by K.L. Going
59 Olive’s Ocean, by Kevin Henkes
60 Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson
61 Draw Me A Star, by Eric Carle
62 The Stupids (series), by Harry Allard
63 The Terrorist, by Caroline B. Cooney
64 Mick Harte Was Here, by Barbara Park
65 The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
66 Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, by Mildred Taylor

67 A Time to Kill, by John Grisham
68 Always Running, by Luis Rodriguez
69 Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury
70 Harris and Me, by Gary Paulsen
71 Junie B. Jones (series), by Barbara Park
72 Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
73 What’s Happening to My Body Book, by Lynda Madaras
74 The Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold
75 Anastasia (series), by Lois Lowry
76 A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
77 Crazy: A Novel, by Benjamin Lebert
78 The Joy of Gay Sex, by Dr. Charles Silverstein
79 The Upstairs Room, by Johanna Reiss
80 A Day No Pigs Would Die, by Robert Newton Peck
81 Black Boy, by Richard Wright
82 Deal With It!, by Esther Drill
83 Detour for Emmy, by Marilyn Reynolds
84 So Far From the Bamboo Grove, by Yoko Watkins
85 Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, by Chris Crutcher
86 Cut, by Patricia McCormick
87 Tiger Eyes, by Judy Blume
88 The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood
89 Friday Night Lights, by H.G. Bissenger
90 A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle
91 Julie of the Wolves, by Jean Graighead George
92 The Boy Who Lost His Face, by Louis Sachar
93 Bumps in the Night, by Harry Allard
94 Goosebumps (series), by R.L. Stine
95 Shade’s Children, by Garth Nix
96 Grendel, by John Gardner
97 The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
98 I Saw Esau, by Iona Opte
99 Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, by Judy Blume
100 America: A Novel, by Frank, E.R.

If you want to raise awareness, copy this list and, like I did, bold the one's you've read. Or review/defend one of the books. Or read or reread a title or two.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

33 1/3 Great Things About Vinyl

Go to any indie record store or one of the better chain places, and it appears that vinyl l.p.s are making a comeback. (Though, as L L Cool J would say....) Here are approximately 33 1/3 reasons to celebrate the new vinyl revolution.

  • You really have to listen to them. Even if you just put a record on to listen to while you're cleaning house or something, you still need to pay attention to know when to lift the stylus and flip it over. (Ed. note: I have since been told that those turntables with an "auto" setting will lift the stylus before it hits the paper part. However, if you're using your grandma's old record player, then there's a good chance that setting doesn't work anymore. And besides, the point about turning it over still stands.)
  • At about a foot square, the album cover itself can be a work of art in its own right, and, in fact, many of the most iconic images of modern popular music are from album covers. Cds shrunk the artwork so that it was kind of pointless to design something interesting. And digital downloads have all but made the album cover irrelevant.
  • And, thanks to the larger size, you can include cool extras like posters in the packaging. I know sometimes you can get them with cds, but in that case you either have to by the expensive boxed set or have them folded up really small.
  • Song order really matters. Because of that break in the middle, you have to choose not only what would make the best beginning and ending song, but how side one will end and two begin. Thus, there is more often than not greater variety in the song order than in a lot of cds that just put all the hits on the earlier tracks and fill the rest out with any old trash. (Though, it should be noted, that there are still plenty of artists--some of them young even--who try to put some thought into sequencing their albums.)
  • The mixing is way better. Notice how loud that cd you just bought sounds? Back in the day when they made records on vinyl, the engineers actually understood that not everything should be the same volume.
  • No need for the remix. A lot of albums were very hastily and carelessly transfered to digital format, resulting in a rather muddy sound quality. Now, a lot of cds have been remixed or remastered to try to recapture the quality of the originals, but the problem is that the record companies have used this as an excuse to jack up the prices.
  • The overall sound quality is better. The process of a vinyl record: the sound waves are recorded on electronic tape, a mechanism reads the waves and presses it into a vinyl disc, then the needle reads those waves and sends them to your speaker. So you're pretty much hearing the same sounds as were made in the studio. Digital recording: a computer records the sound waves as a series of ones and zeros, and then the computer in your cd player tells the speakers what sounds to make. Because the sound waves are binary code, they will come infinitely close to the original, but cannot fully reproduce it. Sound like that's too small of a difference to really matter? Compare a cd and an l.p. of the same album. More than likely the latter will sound fuller, more alive.
  • Vinyl records are a more participatory experience. The process of actually playing one is far more involved than a cd (let alone an MP3 player!), and they require further maintenance and care.
  • You can watch the record go 'round and 'round as it plays. I know, it sounds like something you'd only do if you were really stoned, but here me out. If you want to listen, I mean really listen to music, then it helps you concentrate if your eyes have something to focus on.
  • There's the nostalgia factor. Sure, it's easy to call vinylphiles a bunch of Luddites, but when you listen to a record, it's like you're part of a living history. Slap on your parents' Pet Sounds and you're hearing a little slice of 1966.
  • And then there's the cool factor. There's just something impressive about someone with a lot of vinyl. Besides, you aren't really a hipster if you don't own a copy of White Light/White Heat on vinyl. (Preferably bought at an indie record store.)
  • Vinyl records, properly stored, have outlived first generation cds. Whereas compact discs actually decay, vinyl records just wear out because you've played them too much. But then you can frame the cover and hang it on your wall.
  • They're kind of fragile so it's a little risky buying them online. So it's probably better to go to an acutal physical store. Which is good, because then you might get to know the store's employees and other customers.
  • Online music purchase (whether iTunes or Amazon) isn't really good for browsing. But, if you have to go to a store, given the right mood, you can spend hours just looking at what they've got. And there's nothing more enjoyable than a leisurely flip through a bin of records.
  • Vinyl records aren't nearly as portable as cassettes, cds, and MP3s. Normally, that would be a bad thing, but look at it this way. If you have to be in proximity to the actual apparatus, there's not as much that can distract you from giving the record a good listen.
  • To combat the portability problem, there are some turntables that allow you to copy records onto either cassette or cd. Some even come with a USB port to allow you to load them onto your computer.
  • In the future, it's quite possible that records could be issued with a code to download a digital copy, if, in fact, they aren't already.
  • We wouldn't have certain genres of music like hip-hop or house without vinyl records.
  • Vinyl records are also highly collectable, what with all the bootlegs, Japanese imports, and outdated greatest hits collections that never received a cd rerelease. Sure, there are limited release and special edition cds and download offers, but what's the fun of hunting something down when you can just have someone burn you a copy?
  • And they're great for showing off your collection, too. As was mentioned before, the covers are big enough to frame and display, and you need shelving to hold them all. You can't very well leave your MP3 collection lying around for people to look at, now can you?
  • You can physically manipulate a vinyl record while playing it. Which means you can have all sorts of fun "scratching" or changing the speed to make them sound like chipmunks.
  • As Shaun and Ed proved, you can use them to kill zombies.
  • Cuing a record is really hard, but being able to master it improves your concentration skills tenfold.
  • They're recyclable! The Jamaican record industry still releases singles on 45s so that, if they don't sell, they can recall the extras, melt them down, and repress them as a new single.
  • When singles used to be released on 45s, the artist wasn't necessarily obligated to fill out an entire album just for people to hear it. Similarly, if you just liked that one song by an artist, you didn't have to buy the whole album to here it they way you do with cds. Now, download services have done a lot to bring the single back, but there's a new problem. Everything can be bought as a single, including some songs that don't really stand on their own.
  • When singles were on vinyl, they had B-sides. Usually, these were just throw-away songs, but occasionally a classic song would wind up there. "I Will Survive," "Maggie May," "La Bamba"? All B-sides. With singles today only releasing one song, who knows what hidden greats are slipping through the cracks.
  • They have an aura in the Benjaminian sense. Those clicks, pops, and skips are traces that the record has been owned and played.
  • Also, as an analogue recording, they are an indexical sign of the recording session.
  • Because there's a break in the middle, you don't have to commit to listening to the whole thing in one sitting.
  • And because you can stack them up, you can create relationships between parts of different collections that you can't with a cd changer.
  • Since it's harder to cue, it's easier to see an album side as a unified whole as opposed to a bunch of unconnected songs.
  • However, as a listener you still have choice--Sides One and Two are merely suggestions; you choose where to begin listening.
  • Since so many people have bought into the myth that digital is better, they tend to give their records away cheaply--if not for free. You can make some really great vinyl finds at garage sales or, for the more daring, going dumpster diving.
Ok, so I'm 1/3 short. You try coming up with a fraction of a reason.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

80's Fantasy Villain Throwdown

Jareth vs. the Lord of Darkness

Evil Deeds
Darkness--Tries to make the unicorn go the way of the dodo, which would bring eternal darkness
Jareth--Kidnaps baby, cheats at his own game
Winner: Darkness. That doesn't exactly need much explaining.

Evil Intent
Darkness--Wants to rule over everything
Jareth--Wants to rule over the heart of a 15 year old girl
Winner: Darkness. Put that way, Jareth's motive almost makes him look like an anti-hero. Almost.

Darkness--Attempting to seduce Lily, sticks her in a vampy, revealing outfit
Jareth--Attempting to seduce Sarah, dresses her up to look even younger
Winner: Jareth, for the pedo-squick factor. Sure, Lily's supposed to be "innocent," but Sarah's explicitly underage. Also, have you seen those pants?

Biggest, *ahem* Screen Presence
Darkness--You know what they say about big horns, right?
Jareth--Pants, Magic Pants
Tie: While scale certainly does matter, Big D's, uh... big d. doesn't get framed as prominently as the Area. Nor does it have its own religion.

Winner: Darkness. Although Jareth's crystal balls appear more frequently, it's implied that, full power, Darkness could get up to some seriously bad shit.

Winner: Jareth. Legend may have more glitter overall, but it belongs to the good guys.

Glam Alter Ego
Darkness: Dr. Frank N. Furter
Jareth: Ziggy Stardust
Winner: Jareth. It's really close, but he is the original glam rocker. Um... after Marc Bolan, that is. Ok, make that the original semi-fictitious glam rocker.

Rock Star Hook-up of Said Alter Ego
Jareth--Mick Jagger
Winner: Jareth. Allegedly.

Winner: Jareth, because they're just so darn cute.

Surprisingly Bad Acting from Co-star
Darkness--Future Oscar nominee Tom Cruise
Jareth--Future Oscar winner Jennifer Connelly
Winner: Darkness. It was Connelly's first movie, so she had an excuse.

Darkness--Lily's songs or Tangerine Dream, depending on the release
Jareth--80s Bowie
Winner--Darkness, even though it's not as bad as Tonight

Shipper Fuel
Winner: Jareth. Although I'm sure there's plenty of Darkness/Lily fic out there, the UST in Labyrinth is thicker than Ludo's fur. Plus, it helps that Jareth/Sarah is the only post-pubescent, non-squick ship available.

Tie: The subtle psychological nuances have helped Labyrinth weather the years. And while the original US release of Legend is still pretty bad (especially when shown on late night TV), the director's cut is a vast improvement.

Fight Between Them
Winner: Darkness. I don't think Jareth could sing his way out of that one.

Ultimate Winner
The fans.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Writers' Block and Some Other Stuff

Over the years, I've heard many writers (and writing professors) claim that writers' block doesn't exist. They claim that it is just an excuse we make for ourselves for why we're not writing. Because, of course, we should be writing every single day. And getting up at 5 AM to do it. Just like Papa Hemingway, goll darng it. (Oh, that's where my sarcasm went.)

I disagree. Sort of. (Definitely about the 5 AM part.)

I like to think of it as more of a symptom than an excuse. There's not being able to write because you have no ideas, and then there's times when you have plenty of ideas, but you just can't write them. That's what I think of as the true, real writers' block. I've found that there are two forms of it. The first is when you can't write because you're too afraid to. Fear of not being able to do it right keeps you away from the page. The second is when you just can't bring yourself to write. It's not that you don't want to write, it's that you can't muster up the will to do so. Psychologically speaking, the first could be linked to anxiety, the second to depression. Now, I know from experience that the first instance can actually be overcome by writing itself. You get going and then--hey, this isn't so bad after all. And, anyway, there's always revisions. I'm working on the hypothesis that writing itself remedies the other as well.

Well, that's a bit more personal (More personal than all that stuff about your weird Scotsman obsession, you ask.) and grim than usual, so here's a few blog and web recommendations for you.

  • First, a few updates. Kat's Divine Comedy and Hip Deep in Pie* are old blogs with new names.
  • Music, Movies, Shenanigans appears to be defunct, but some of the guys from that blog have moved on to Cinewise, a blog for film (and sometimes TV) reviews.
  • On the book front, The Haunted Bookshop now has a blog, and a friend from college runs the (un)classified library.
  • Frankasaurus is another friend from college who always has something insightful to say. Good stuff on writing, and I fully agree with her views on drunken skanks.
  • Now on to links. I suspect I may be behind the times on this one, but I discovered Eclectic Method* while helping out** with the post-production of Copyright Criminals. Not exactly legal, but some pretty amazing video mash-ups.
  • Ok, now I know I'm behind the times on this one. Lolcats* Ai r uhdikted 2 cheezburgers.
  • Like Labyrinth? The Phantom of the Opera? Pirates of the Caribbean? Les Miserables? Good Omens? Sweeny Todd? Lord of the Rings? Discworld? And many more works of fiction? Then check out Girls Next Door* (not to be confused with that Playboy thing), the ultimate in crossover fan comics. Now, normally, I don't even like to admit that I read fanfiction--um, I mean, what's a Mary Sue?--but this tongue-firmly-in-cheek comic is worth a read if you're at all familiar with the above (especially the first four). It's funny, one of the few non-cringeworthy crossovers, and meta like whoa. Note: the most recent pages are up front so go all the way to the end of the gallery for the beginning.
  • Finally, got an hour or twelve to spare? Then get yourself over to Television Tropes & Idioms*, a pop-culture wiki that does exactly what it says on the tin. Be careful. You could get lost on that site for days.
I'm sure I've left some friends' blogs and really important other stuff out, but I'm tired of having to fight the cat for control of the keyboard. ("mki dfs hyrt," she says.) Until next time, when it's back to your regularly scheduled sarcastic fan squee.

*Link to be updated on the side when I get around to it.
**OK, technically I just wrote down some time codes on the DVD, but, whatever, it looks cool on my resume.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Conspiracy Theories Are More Fun When You Make Them Up Yourself

Recently, a friend linked me to an article that claimed that, in his upcoming autobiography, Keith Richards will reveal that, were he not a rock 'n' roll legend, he would be a librarian. This only serves to confirm something I have long suspected: Rock stars are secret nerds.

My theory is as follows: Whereas most of us nerds cope with being shoved in our lockers by planning our revenge (what else could possibly explain the sadism behind Windows Vista?), the rock star has discovered that such tortures can be avoided by doing something perceivably cooler. Being in a band hides their nerdish qualities, but if you look closely enough, you can still see them.

A brief note before I present my evidence: Just because someone may sing about being an outsider, "Loser," or "Creep" doesn't necessarily make them a nerd. There are dozens of other fringe groups besides nerds, and, furthermore, this wonderful little thing called the poetic "I" means that, though someone may be speaking in the first person, what they're saying isn't personal. Also, a clarification: nerd cred (or "credibility") means that something someone's done has gained them a considerable following among nerds. So having nerd cred doesn't exactly equate being a nerd, but it can often be a sign that a nerd lies within.

Anyway, on to the evidence.

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. These 70s rock gods were into what bassist John Paul Jones dubbed "fairy shit." Both were fascinated by British folklore, though Page's interests tended to be a bit darker. Furthermore, many of their songs ("Misty Mountain Hop," "The Battle of Evermore," etc.) make reference to ultimate nerd text The Lord of the Rings. They are most explicit in the lines from "Ramble On," "'Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor, I met a girl so fair/But Gollum and the Evil One crept up and slipped away with her." Also, check out their fantasy sequences in The Song Remains the Same.

Brian Eno. The synthesizer follows closely behind the clarinet and the tuba as the nerd instrument to end all nerd instruments. The different sounds a synthesizer makes are different programs, so it's basically a musical computer. Now synths have been in use by rock bands since the 1960s, but in the 70s Eno really pushed how this instrument could be used. When artists have him produce their albums, they don't say they're calling in the geek squad. But they should.

Related to this is what I like to call the Rule of Synth. Basically, any creative or unusual use of synthesizers is a strong indication of an inner nerd. Thus, most 70s/80s New Wave, New Romantics, and German bands are more than likely nerds. Case in point: Devo.

Rivers Cuomo. Put his highly successful gig with Weezer on hiatus to go finish his bachelor's degree. From Harvard.

Sting. Imagine you're a British youth of the late 70s. You turn on Top of the Pops or something one day, and--OMG! That's Mr. Sumner! Yep, before making it big with The Police, Sting was a teacher of--if memory serves me right--something nerdy like history or English.

Iggy Pop. The godfather of punk had an essay on Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published in an academic journal. Even if his naked torso was smeared with peanut butter while he wrote it, that's still pretty nerdy.

David Bowie. Even discounting the serious nerd cred of Labyrinth, there's still the numerous sci-fi references, collaborations with Eno (see above), and the major innovations in the way we use the internet he made in the 1990s. (Some consider him one of the first bloggers.) Ziggy may have played guitar, but I bet he also wore a pocket protector.

Buddy Holly, Elvis Costello, and others who wear nerd glasses. As John Lennon proved, wearing glasses does not necessarily make one look like a nerd, so, even if thick frames are in style, if they wear glasses and still look like nerds, chances are they probably are. Elton John is particularly guilty of this because, no matter how many sequins he put on his specs, they still made him look like a total dork.

Bob Dylan. Again, nerd cred for the way literary critics have gravitated toward his lyrics. But in his autobiography, he admits to doing research for his songs. Also, have you heard his Christmas album? He sings polka. Polka!

That's about all I can think of for now. If there are other rock stars you suspect of being nerds, I'd appreciate your evidence.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

British Actor of the Month--First Pretend Scottish Boyfriend Edition

I know, I know. I skipped April. But, really, things got a little crazy, and there's really no point in going back. So, anyway, May's British actor is a bit of a unique case in that I think I developed a crush on him before I'd even seen him in a movie. I just knew that he was sexy and Scottish, and that was enough for my sixteen or seventeen-year-old self. And that's how

Ewan McGregor

became my first pretend Scottish boyfriend. Luckily, I have had occasion enough since then to see one or two or fifteen of his movies. Now, the films he's in tend to range in quality from the enjoyable likes of Emma or Black Hawk Down to those that make you wish you could donate your corneas while still living--I'm thinking of Miss Potter and especially The Island right now. But he usually makes as good as he can out of the material. Here's a list of some of my favorite points in his career:

  • Trainspotting, otherwise known as my favorite movie. In it, McGregor plays a Scottish heroine addict who has to decide whether he should stay on the margins with his friends or "choose life" and leave them behind for a more ordinary existence. In addition to the dark, surreal humor and the great soundtrack, you get to hear those natural Scottish accents.
  • Velvet Goldmine, in which he plays the Iggy Pop-like proto-punk singer Curt Wild. This ode to glam rock has many perks for his fans like watching him make out with Jonathan Rhys Meyers and expose not-so-little Ewan--um, I mean, getting to hear him sing. Yeah. *coughs*
  • And of course, for those of you with less prurient interests who still want to see him sing, there's always Moulin Rouge! (It's basically VG minus the gay stuff. Well, sort-of.) Now, for many years, owing to a "dispute" with a former roommate, I refused to watch this movie, but the appeal of Ewan (and the stupid master's exams) finally wore me down. I've got to say, it wasn't half-bad. Especially since, as Satine would put it, he's got an enormous talent.
  • Star Wars Episode I-III. Now, like any self-respecting sci-fi geek, I hate the prequel trilogy. But I think it's kind of cool that McGregor was in them. Because, you see, ever since his uncle had a bit part in the original (and better) trilogy, Ewan had always wanted to be in Star Wars. So, much like last December's British Actor (a.k.a. my current pretend Scottish boyfrined), this would suggest that he's a bit of a nerd.
  • Shallow Grave. Oh my God! Doctor Who's trying to kill Obi-Wan!!! But seriously, this is the film that first brought McGregor and future 9th Doctor Christopher Eccleston--as well as Scottish cinema--international attention. A thriller about three flatmates who make a very bad decision that gets even worse, it's a small film, but it's size just makes it all the more tense.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Album Face Off

I've always wanted to write music reviews, but, sadly, I tend to be not all that objective when it comes to music. I fear that they would only consist of three words: "Dude, that rocked/sucked." However, I'm rather good at comparing and ranking things (just look in the back entries for that time I decided to use my living room floor to put all my CDs in order of preference), so I've decided to start a feature in which I pit two or more albums against each other to determine, if possible, which is the greater(est). For this first match up, I present to you

Raw Power versus... Raw Power?

I know, some of you may be confused. Is there another Raw Power besides the one by Iggy and the Stooges, you ask. Well, gather 'round, children, it's story time. See, the original 1973 version was mixed by David Bowie, but by the time of the CD re-release in 1997, Iggy Pop had decided that he didn't wanna be perceived as Bowie's dog anymore (I think that joke might be stolen from The Venture Brothers, at least in spirit), so he remixed it. Thus, there are two different versions of the album available.

I kind of prefer the Iggy Pop mix. Bowie's version mixes the instruments much lower than the vocals, making them harder to hear. In the later version there's a more even distribution of volume. However, the original mix does have some very strong merits. For one thing, if you listen carefully, there's some musical parts in this one that get lost on the second mix. For another, to paraphrase some guy at Rolling Stone, the necessity of having to turn it up to hear it properly gave the record an aggressive quality, thus cementing the bands reputation as Godfathers of punk. Historical value aside, the recently re-released Bowie mix, while a bit more expensive, comes with a bonus disc of an Atlanta performance. It's not the best live recording ever, but it does contain some excellent audience abuse.

Basically, though, the differences between the two mixes are subtle enough that unless you're a character from the film High Fidelity, you're not really going to find them that big of a deal. Either way, it's a damn good record, and rightly deserves its place on most top 100 (or whatever) album lists. (See? What did I tell you--no objectivity whatsoever.) So some advice to the consumer: If you're a casual fan or just curious, you'll probably want to get the Iggy mix--most places have it for under $10, so it's the right price. The more hard-core music lover may want to shell out extra for the "new" version of the old mix, though. Devout Stooges fans, however, probably have both.

Note to my readers: I could really use some feedback. Was my little foray into the world of music criticism successful, and if so, what should I match up next? Let It Be v. Let It Be... Naked? V. The Replacement's Let It Be? Stereo v. Mono Pet Sounds? Brandenburg Concerto #2 v. #3? Suggestions are welcome, as long as they don't suck.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Easter Bunny Says... Recycle!

Fear not, loyal readers, March's British Actor of the Month is on the way. In the meantime, enjoy this entry I've lifted from my old MySpace blog this Passover/Easter weekend.

Songs About God.

Although which god is variable.

And these are all
good songs. None of that "inspirational" crap. And NO CREED!

"Gotta Serve Somebody" by Bob Dylan
There are plenty of Dylan songs about the the Almighty. Dylan had a three album "Gospel period" and was plagerizing the Bible long before anyone knew who the fuck Henry Timrod was. I chose this number because it works on so many different levels. For one thing, he never actually specifies whom one has to choose to serve. He sings, "it may be the devil or it may be the Lord" but there's no opinion in the lyrics of which it's got to be. (Lyrics are on his official site. Go look them up yourself if you don't believe me.) Now, in the context of Slow Train Coming, it's pretty clear which party ol' Zimmy thinks we should be serving, but the song's ambiguity has helped it survive in his post(?)-conversion career.

"Father of Night" by Bob Dylan
I'm not trying to cheat and pack this list with Dylan tunes. Honest! But, given that the little fellow is rather famous for converting, unconverting, and confusing the hell out of people (nothing new there!), I thought it appropriate to include a song about the other god he may or may not be worshipping. (Although, techincially it's the same god....) This little-heard track off New Morning is supposedly based on a Jewish prayer. Also, special props to "Neighborhood Bully" of the post-conversion Infidels which, although not specifically about God, is a fine salute to Zionism.

"Spririt in the Sky" by Norman Greenbaum
Gospel for hippies. Also, it's got one of the most awesome guitar riffs ever.

"My Sweet Lord" by George Harrison
Although it might sound suspiciously like an old Chiffons tune, this All Things Must Pass track is almost something your youth pastor could get down with. Until George turns all the "hallelujahs" to "Harre Krishnas," that is. No wonder he's my favorite Beatle.

"Jesus Is Just Alright" by the Doobie Brothers
Is this song serious, or is it making fun of all the ex-hippies who were suddenly turning to the big J.C. as their new guru? I'm not sure, but it's still a fun song.

"Hallelujah" by Leonard Cohen
Everybody and their mother has covered it. (I like Jeff Buckley's version.) This song could be read as being about both earthly and heavenly love. Some singers drop verses to make it one way or the other, some sing it all the way through. Either way, it's a beautiful song.

"One Love/People Get Ready" by Bob Marley
Like the other Bob on the list, this reggae master recorded a lot of religious songs. So many, in fact, that he's considered a Rastafarian prophet. To tell you the truth, I almost went with "Redemption Song," but then I figured, since "One Love" has been co-opted by the Jamaican tourist bord, it's important to point out this song's religious content. It's "Give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right" not "come to Jamaica."

"I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For" by U2
The lover-as-a-metaphor-for-God device can be very tricky. The results can be awful (think of Cartman's Christian rock band on South Park) to downright nauseating (Debbie Boone's "You Light Up My Life"). But this Joshua Tree track proves that nobody does it better than U2. (Take that, Scott Stapp!) Is Bono looking for the right girl or spiritual fulfillment? Who knows, who cares. It's a good song.

"One of Us" by Joan Osborne
Not the biggest fan of this song, but it does ask an interesting question. What if God was one of us?

"I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar
Mary Magdellan (pre-Da Vinci Code, people) sings this in the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. You could read this as a disciple/groupie trying to figure out her feelings for the messiah/rock star, or even as someone trying to figure out what to do with Jesus in the modern world. Actually, check out the entire original cast recording of Superstar. It's Godly and Groovy!

"Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" by Monty Python
Ok, I lied, this song isn't about God. But it's from my favorite movie that isn't (wink, wink) about Jesus, Life of Brian. Which is, of course, a great movie to watch on Easter. If you're not, you know, afraid of a smiting or two.

This is from three years ago, so please feel free to use the comments to update me, add your own favorites, and/or tell me I'm going to hell in a handbasket.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

British Actor of the Month--Retro Time Travelin' Edition

This month's British actor is none other than

John Simm

Now, I, like many PBS-watching Americans, first noticed Simm in Doctor Who, where he occasionally guest-stars as the latest incarnation of the Doctor's arch-nemesis the Master. Simm plays this fellow renegade Time Lord more unhinged than his predecessors (Well, most of them, anyway, but we don't talk about Eric Roberts.), but, oddly enough, his hair-brained schemes seem a bit less hair-brained. Seriously, the Doctor had to pull a Tinkerbell!Jesus ex machina to defeat him in "The Last of the Time Lords." Simm brings a certain degree of mad humor to the role that made him an excellent foil for Tennant's Doctor, and hopefully we'll get to see him again the next time these old rivals' paths cross.

However, Simm first came to the attention of Doctor Who's producers through his starring role in the BBC series Life on Mars. Simm plays Sam Tyler, a Manchester police detective who gets hit by a car and wakes up in 1973. Is he crazy? In a coma dream? Or has he really travelled back in time? The show (At least what I've seen of it so far. I'm on Series 2, episode 4, so no spoilers, please! Unless you're going to tell me whether or not Ashes to Ashes is also awesome.) leaves this pretty ambiguous. In fact, at the end of the first series, I thought I had it figured out, but then they did something in the series two opener that's left me guessing. The show is totally worth checking out, if only to see Simm struggle to figure out his predicament and new surroundings and to bring a little compassion and justice to the retro police force. Also, the soundtrack rocks.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

British Actor(s) of the Month: Twofer Edition

Since I sort of skipped January (stupid exams), this month you get two actors for the price of one!

The double act is a long tradition in the history of comedy. Burns and Allen. Hepburn and Tracey. Stiller and Meara.* So this month, I present to you

Simon Pegg and Nick Frost

Britain's Finest

Now, Pegg, if you're not familiar with the work they've done together, you'll at least recognize from some of the American movies he's made recently, in particularly a tiny little film that came out last summer called Star Trek. Frost, though, on this side of the pond, at any rate, is usually seen as Pegg's sidekick in things they've collaborated on with writer/director Edgar Wright.

In cult classic Shaun of the Dead, Pegg and Frost play video gaming roommates trying to make it down to the pub amidst the zombie apocalypse. For a follow-up, the duo play partners--Pegg the perfectionist, by-the-book tough cop; Frost the juvenile, somewhat thick, junior officer--in the action movie send-up Hot Fuzz (see above). But their best pairing remains the cult show Spaced, about a group of 20-somethings trying their best to avoid adulthood. Pegg plays an aspiring comic book artist pretending to be married to an aspiring writer so they can rent a professional couples only flat. Frost is his gun-obsessed best friend. Trust me, it's hilarious.

*You may be wondering why I'm using male/female duos who were romantically linked to illustrate my point. Just watch the show and movies....

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Annual Arbitrary Oscar Predictions

Disclaimers: Ok, I suspect my subscribers know this already, but I hardly ever base my Oscar picks on any kind of knowledge or insight I've gained from my years studying film or my brief sojourn in Hollywood. Usually, I choose based on whether or not I can make a joke about why I chose it. And, since I only saw four new movies in 2009, this year's picks might be the most arbitrary yet!

The Noms Everyone Cares About

Best Picture
The Blind Side
District 9
An Education
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
A Serious Man
Up in the Air
Why? I'm in an anti-Avatar mood, and how good can a movie really be if they have to tell you in the title what the source text is? Normally, I'd go with Tarantino, but that spelling just makes me cringe. Also, this new ten nominee thing is just stupid.

Best Actor
Jeff Bridges, Crazy Heart
George Clooney, Up in the Air
Colin Firth, A Single Man
Morgan Freeman, Invictus
Jeremy Renner, The Hurt Locker
Why? Because he's the Dude, that's why.

Best Actress
Sandra Bullock, The Blind Side
Helen Mirren, The Last Station
Carey Mulligan, An Education
Gabourey Sidibe, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Meryl Streep, Julie and Julia
Why? Sally Sparrow, FTW.

Best Supporting Actor
Matt Damon, Invictus
Woody Harrelson, The Messenger
Christopher Plummer, The Last Station
Stanely Tucci, The Lovely Bones
Christoph Waltz, Inglourious Basterds
Why? Um... Gotta support my sort-of ex-boss??

Best Supporting Actress
Penelope Cruz, Nine
Vera Farmiga, Up in the Air
Maggie Gyllenhaal, Crazy Heart
Anna Kendrick, Up in the Air
Mo'Nique, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Why? Eanie, meanin, minie, Mo'nique. Normally, I'd pick Penelope Cruz, but I'm not sure how to feel about a musical remake of 8 1/2.

Best Director
James Cameron, Avatar
Katheryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Lee Daniels, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Jason Reitman, Up in the Air
Why? In case you've somehow managed to miss every single news report about the Oscar noms that have mentioned this (and they all have), Katheryn Bigelow is James Cameron's ex-wife. In the battle of the sexes, I back the girl. Plus, she didn't marry that drip from The Terminator who can't act.

The Noms I, At Least, Care About

Best Foreign Language Film
Ajami, Israel
El Secreto de Sus Ojos, Argentina
The Milk of Sorrow, Peru
Un Prophete [there's a missing accent mark on that first "e"], France
The White Ribbon, Germany*
Why? It's a Michael Haneke film. I'm slightly worried that if I don't pick it, mysterious video tapes will start appearing on my doorstep....

Best Animated Feature
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Princess and the Frog
The Secret of the Kells
Why? All the animation experts I know (all two of them) think highly of this one.

Best Documentary Feature
Burma VJ
The Cove
Food, Inc.
The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers
Which Way Home
Why? Mmm... topical... *drools Homer Simpson-esquely*

Adapted Screenplay
Neill Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9
Nick Hornby, An Education
Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Iannucci, Tony Roche, In the Loop
Geoffrey Fletcher, Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner, Up in the Air
Why? A movie about aliens that's supposed to be a political allegory... Sounds good to me. Someone remind me why I didn't see this? Oh, that's right, because grad school EATS ALL OF YOUR TIME.

Original Screenplay
Mark Boal, The Hurt Locker
Quentin Tarantino, Inglourious Basterds
Alessandro Camon and Oren Moverman, The Messenger
Joel and Ethan Cohen, A Serious Man
A Bunch of People, Up
Why? Anyone notice what box-office record breaking movie isn't nominated? There's a reason for that...

Original Song
"Almost There," Randy Newman (The Princess and the Frog)
"Down in New Orleans," Randy Newman (The Princess and the Frog)
"Loin de Paname," music by Reinhardt Wagner, lyrics by Frank Thomas (Paris 36)
"Take It All," Maury Yeston (Nine)
"The Weary Kind (Theme from Crazy Heart)," Ryan Bingham and T Bone Burnett (Crazy Heart)
Why? Disney's days of taking dominating the best song category are long gone. Also, I saw T Bone live and he ROCKS.

Well, Somebody Must Care....

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
The White Ribbon
Why?? Finally, one I've seen!!!

Art Direction
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
Sherlock Holmes
The Young Victoria
Why? I've seen this one, too!!! Oh, and it was awesomely steampunk.

Visual Effects
District 9
Star Trek
Why? If you have to ask why, just stay under that rock you've been living beneath.

Original Score
Fantastic Mr. Fox
The Hurt Locker
Sherlock Holmes
Why? Does Robert Downey, Jr., being really awesome in it count as reason enough for this category?

Film Editing
District 9
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Precious: Based on the Novel "Push" by Sapphire
Why? *Shrugs*

Sound Editing
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Why? Here's the better question: Why wasn't this nominated for Best Picture? This was definitely the best movie I've seen this year. (Remember I've only seen four....)

Sound Mixing
The Hurt Locker
Inglourious Basterds
Star Trek
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Why? Sound Mixing and Sound Editing. Can you really have one without the other? Fun fact: despite having taken a class on film sound last year, I still don't understand what the difference between these two awards is.

Costume Design
Bright Star
Coco Before Channel
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus
The Young Victoria
Why? It's a movie about fashion. Maybe, just maybe, it's got a chance at winning.

Il Divo
Star Trek
The Young Victoria
Why? One word: Romulans.

What, There's More???

Live Action Short
The Door
Instead of Abracadabra
Miracle Fish
The New Tenants
Why? Say the magic word!

Documentary Short
China's Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province
The Last Campaign of Booth Gardner
The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plant
Music by Prudence
Rabbit a la Berlin
Why? Always pick the one with the most topical-sounding title.

Animated Short
French Roast
Granny O'Grimm's Sleeping Beauty
The Lady and the Reaper (La Dame y la Muerte)
A Matter of Loaf and Death
Why? The title made me laugh.

*I started to type "Michael Haneke" as the country. Ironically, it would probably have made more sense had I left it that way.