Saturday, December 29, 2007

A belated Merry Christmas to you all. I hope you got all you wanted. I was blessed with food poisoning, myself, from some bad shellfish from a Chinese buffet, I believe. Fun times. Gradually recovering, but expect to develop a close relationship with soup over the next few days (a step above projectile-spewing clear liquids within ten minutes of consumption).

A brief note on my own self-centeredness: I drug myself out of bed, tried to watch some TV, and saw the news about Bhutto being assassinated. My reaction was disappointment that I was too sick to stay out of bed, and wouldn't be able to follow the news live. Why does everything happen to me? (I was up long enough to be disgusted that the news channels seemed to have a hard time deciding if a political assassination should cut away from there round-the-clock coverage of the tiger mauling, though)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

When I was in high school, a junior, if memory serves, I was watching T.V. one evening, when I flipped by Bravo and stopped to watch a bit of a musical they were showing. That musical was Sweeney Todd, and while I'd missed most of the first half, I very quickly found myself fixated on this show, which was not quite like anything I'd ever seen before. They reran it later that day, in the dark of night, and I taped it, so that I could ultimately watch it more than I have probably watched just about anything else. It was a filmed performance of the Broadway show, with George Hearn and Angela Lansbury, which apparently originally aired on PBS in 1982. I suppose what first grabbed me about the musical was the macabre subject matter and pitch-black take on human nature (well, okay, what FIRST got my attention was Lansbury--"So, just WHAT is the Murder, She Wrote lady putting into that pie?!"). And the music was absolutely fantastic, with an operatic scope, alternating between the beautiful and the visceral, and really put to shame the Broadway smashes with which I was more familiar (I used to love Les Miserables; the last time I listened to it, I was embarrassed for us both). And Sondheim's wit provided just enough of a safe space to keep the show from crushing me.

There was a lot artistically in Sweeney Todd to appeal to me. But I think my obsession with the show was also because I came to think of it as mine. I think sometimes an individual comes across a cultural artifact, so different from the media with which they are familiar, that they virtually fetishize the product, develop an obsession with it, as I did, partly due to its merits, and partly just to celebrate the serendipity by which this item was discovered, and one's horizons were widened (hope that's not too pretentious; I'm not quite sure how to say what I mean here). I'd stumbled upon it unawares, I'd never heard of it (I'd only barely heard of Sondheim), and my friends had never heard of it. And now I wanted it to become a fixture in my life. For close to two years, I watched it virtually daily. Not always in its entirety, but at least substantial segments--"Pretty Girls" through to "A Little Priest," say, or possibly through to Sweeney's version of "Johanna" (I would often just play that song over and over and over again). Most nights before I went to bed, that's what I watched. (It made me question my sanity--It can't be normal to watch the same thing this often, I would fret to myself) In college, the frequency diminished, but it was some time before the tradition died, and still I knew it wouldn't be long before I returned, for weeks, sometimes months, of obsessive viewing. There are other musicals (Urinetown, for instance) I love, but Sweeney Todd's special place in my psyche is, I feel it safe to say, permanent and unique.

So as you might imagine, news of a Sweeney Todd movie was difficult for me to deal with. Tim Burton presenting Sweeney Todd sounded like nothing short of perfect. But things can go wrong, and the thought of a bad Sweeney Todd movie was too much to bear. And even a good Sweeney Todd movie wouldn't be my Sweeney Todd movie. I had come to think of the Lansbury/Hearn Sweeney Todd as the definitive version, and feared change. The Broadway cast album featured Len Cariou as Sweeney, which was a great disappointment on first listen (he's grown on me, but I prefer Hearn's manic rendition better). I'd seen several stage productions, including the fantastic version hosted by the Sledgehammer Theatre, which I saw several times during its two different runs, but even as I acknowledge the talented local actor from that production is quite possibly the best Sweeney I've ever seen, seeing this and any other production only sent me back to the familiarity of my original cassette, or now the commercially-available DVD. I realize part of the point of live theater is that things can evolve and be reinterpreted, but a movie would require much more substantial changes and adaptations. Then there was the whole thing about casting Johnny Depp as Sweeney. That did nothing to diminish by unease.

So as the movie approached, I avoided media coverage of the film. I never saw the trailer, and thanks to my DVR and the writer's strike, only saw the commercial a handful of times; it confirmed that the look and feel of the film rang true, but didn't show enough to pass judgement (Depp never sang). So when I saw the reviews coming in yesterday, it all seemed rather sudden. Much like Christmas really snuck up me this year, I found myself asking myself, Is it really time for me to confront the Sweeney Todd movie? It was, and this afternoon, I did.

And I loved it. Really loved it. Despite its flaws, and yes, it is most certainly flawed. But they got so much right. Yes, it's different than the show I know by heart, but film is a different medium, different enough that I can appreciate it on its own merits. I'll never make the film a part of my life like I did the televised stage rendition, but I still imagine the movie DVD will be played a fair amount when it comes out.

Let's start with what I didn't like. They could have done better than Helena Bonham Carter. By the conclusion of "The Worst Pies in London," I was half-convinced she was going to single-handedly sink the production. She grew on me, and in retrospect I think part of the problem was that the humor of the first song might not work as well on film, requiring the exaggerated acting and audience interaction of live theater. But still, I found her a bit disappointing; she always seemed to be trying so hard when she was singing. Clearly singing is not within her comfort zone. Kudos for trying, and she makes it work, but I think they could have found someone with more musical experience, who could have moved beyond "making it work." But if there was one odd casting choice, it was for the role of Tobias. Newcomer Ed Sanders is fine, but he is a child, looking like he came straight from the cast of Oliver! Tobias is a simple-minded man-child, not an actual child. When he first emerges from Pirelli's wagon, I was in shock. But as the film goes on, and I see how they've changed the role to reflect his age, I thought it was an inspired change, highlighting the class issues that are a sub-theme of the show. But as I started thinking ahead, knowing where the story was going, I realized it wouldn't work. And it doesn't work. It doesn't work at all. I can't say why without spoiling things, so I won't. But it doesn't work.

Lots of changes involving moving, shortening, or cutting songs. "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd," which bookends the musical and provides narrative throughout, was cut. Probably a wise choice, mostly. I'm reluctant to discuss the ending (and by ending, I mean final seconds), but lets just say I wished they found something to replace the final reprise of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" with. The Johanna/Anthony storyline is streamlined, their songs truncated or dropped and told instead with more filmic techniques. This I whole-heartedly support; getting through their romance always felt like a chore, and giving Alan Rickman more room to expand on his evil character is a wise approach to the material. The beginning of the second act is shuffled around a bit, with a trimmed "God, that's Good" coming after "Johanna." My main complaint with the songs being trimmed was that "A Little Priest" was quite truncated. Which was probably a necessity. But instead of cutting out some of the career puns (well, they actually did that, too), they cut out the verses that highlight the economic themes and concerns with the class struggle which undergird the story. How do you cut verses like:

The history of the world, my love
Is those below serving those up above!
How gratifying for once to know
That those above will serve those down below!
or: the verse:
The history of the world, my sweet
Is who gets eaten and who gets to eat!
But fortunately it's also clear
That everybody goes down well with beer!
Good stuff. [edit: Oops, on subsequent viewing, I realized I misremembered; the first verse quoted was in the movie. Mea maxima culpa.] So I was sad that was gone. And the whole song doesn't work too well on screen, apparently because they felt that we just couldn't understand what they were talking about unless they showed a member of every profession just as it was mentioned in the song, which just made things feel awkward (and was it just me, or did the fop look more like a pimp).

Anyway, that gets my complaining pretty much taken care of (I intend to see it again Christmas day with my sister and brother-in-law, and I'm sure I'll find more nits to pick). It probably won't take up as much space to say what I like, because it doesn't take much time to say: Wonderful! The look of the film, the sets, the costumes, the cinematography, the blood, all was perfect. By the end of the opening credits, I was already highly impressed. The black-and-white world of Victorian London, sprayed with arterial blood, or the washed-out colors of Mrs. Lovett's fantasy (the existence of a Sweeney Todd movie is completely justified just on the basis of Burton's take on "By the Sea"). A soaring orchestral score, giving Sondheim's music the majesty it deserves. Sasha Baron Cohen as Pirelli, Alan Rickman as Judge Turpin, and Timothy Spall as Beadle Bamford are all inspired choices. And yes, even Johnny Depp as Sweeney works excellently. Within the first twenty minutes, I had forgot my misgivings, only to briefly remember them during "Epiphany" (he can't quite pull it off, but comes close enough to get by). But I'm sure, whatever is lost briefly in one song is more than made up for by the value of the Depp-Burton collaboration.

I am just so happy I enjoyed this movie. I really feared today's trip to the movies would be a soul-crushing experience. But providence is kind, and the film Sweeney Todd is just as tasty as one of Mrs. Lovett's meat pies (you know, the good ones, with the good meat in them, not the awful ones). I really can't recommend this film too much. If you don't know the story, this is a fantastic introduction, and if you do, Burton's pitch-perfect film is a great way to experience it again in a unique way. I'm sure I'll be digging up my Sweeney Todd DVD and getting reacquainted with my old friends Sweeney Todd and his old friends the razors. But before that, I can't wait to see this movie again.

Needless to say, my vote for best picture of 2007 should be quite evident, but in case it needs saying, let me give my choice now: Reno 911: Miami Sweeney Todd.

UPDATE: Added imeem's stream of the movie soundtrack. You'll probably want to wait until you've seen the movie to give it a listen, but it's nice for revisiting the film.

UPDATE #2: Okay, apparently the imeem player above will only play 30-second samples, even if you're logged in to imeem, if you try to stream it from this page. If you click on "launch standalone player," at the bottom of the page (and are logged into imeem), it will open a new window where you can listen to the whole album (as that page doesn't have ads, I don't understand the point of this obstacle to music enjoyment, but whatver, I should be grateful for a free stream of the entire album).

I hit the road last weekend, heading up to Los Angeles to see a presentation of Frankenstein (Mortal Toys) and attend the Museum of Jurassic Technology's Christmas party. I probably couldn't have worked up the strength to drive to L.A. for either event, singularly, but combined they gave my trip purpose.

Frankenstein (Mortal Toys) certainly made the trip worthwhile in and of itself. Mary Shelley's tale, adapted to the stage, then adapted to puppets, cardboard cut-outs, basically, with articulated joints, painted in the style of 18th-century American portrait painting. The puppets were simultaneously simple and expressive, and the stark sets managed to invoke the sublime despite their diminutive size. And the various frigid settings (the Arctic, Mont Blanc) made the show's performance at the Velaslavasky Panorama particularly apt. If you ever have a chance to see a performance of this remarkable show, I highly recommend you do so.

The Museum of Jurassic Technology's party was enjoyable. I always enjoy being there, it's a very peaceful place. It truly invokes the museum's early calling, to invoke the Muses. The Bulgarian folk music was entertaining, and the food was okay, and the curator's dog took a particular shining to me, for some reason (wanting my Apple turnover, I know, but others had food as well, yet I was singled out--I'm special!). I didn't stay too long, as the place was far too crowded for its size, though it is nice to see that lots of people agree with me that the museum is a special place (except for the nasty old ladies who insisted on shouting over the musician standing two paces away so they could continue their discussion of what they had for lunch). As I left the building to go home, I was stopped by two young hipsters, who seemed surprised to see anyone emerge from the storefront (from outside, the museum always appears closed), and started peppering me with variations of what seemed like a simple question, considering I had just left the establishment: What the hell is this place? But, with the exception of the question, "Are there dinosaurs?" (answer: no), I didn't quite know what to say. For a place I have come to bestow an almost holy significance, it is quite difficult to put into words just what it is. There is a very quick reply that immediately comes to mind, but to give that explanation is to once expose the central conceit of the place in a ham-fisted way, and also to narrow it's significance to this one gimmick, defining the whole by one shallow aspect of the part. Though I suppose that all sounds rather pretentious. Anyway, I encouraged them to visit the museum some time, with the promise of oddities and wonderment. And of course I encourage you to do the same, if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

UPDATE: Last time I visited the Velaslavasay Panorama, I didn't share my pictures, which didn't really turn out due to the low lighting. This time, I took some snapshots with my iPhone (did I mention that I bought an iPhone? I have an iPhone), and while the camera in the iPhone isn't the greatest, it actually does remarkably well in low light, so I went ahead and uploaded a few photos of the "Effulgence of the North", as well as one I took from the Museum of Jurassic Technology.

Friday, December 21, 2007

At 9:00 PM PST, the premiere episode of Cinematic Titanic, the new project by the creators of Mystery Science Theater 3000, went on sale. By 9:10, I'd placed my order (too bad they say it won't ship for at least ten days). I figure, for the years of joy they've given me, I owe them that. Having watched the trailer, I'll say I'm cautiously optimistic. I have some reservations, just because I've found Mike Nelson's post-MST3K work somewhat of a let-down (though I applaud him for keeping the spirit of the show alive). I've only seen one of his Film Crew DVDs, and it was enjoyable, being as they chose to riff on a film starring Rue McClanahan as a stripper, but the whole thing had a shooting-fish-in-the-barrel quality (long stretches of the commentary is just Mike and friends reassuring the audience that, yes, they too are horrified by what they see). But the whole Rifftrax thing (downloadable audio commentaries to big Hollywood movies, mostly) never appealed to me--it was the shlocky B-movies and the social commentary they allowed that really drew me to MST3K (especially their takes on short hygiene films; "Mr. B Natural" was a transformative experience in my life).

Anyway, just wanted to let you all know that this product exists. And hey, two members of the Cinematic Titanic crew were until recently keeping their writing chops sharp by working on America's Funniest Home Videos, so you know they're bringing the funny (does my snobbery know no bounds? No, it doesn't).

Monday, December 17, 2007

Slylock Fox has introduced a new character, Carla, Cassandra Cat's cousin. Say what you want about this strip, but Bob Weber, Jr., knows how to give his adult fans what they want (assuming they're fur fetishists, or just kinda weird).

If you're having trouble reading the solution to this little mindteaser, I'm pretty sure she picked that house because, judging from the perspective, it's a cardboard cutout of a house, and she can just walk around it (but the fact that she's using a crowbar suggests the house was perhaps built at a 90 degree angle to the street, so that the appearance of sexy cat-burglars could be enjoyed by passers-by).

UPDATE: I think I may have to add the comic strip My Cage to my daily rotation; any strip that "borrows" Cassandra Cat is just alright with me.

UPDATE #2: Okay, so apparently My Cage and Slylock Fox share a syndicate (King Features), and Cassandra Cat's appearance in My Cage is a joint effort that will continue all week; presumably, Carla is just filling in the for her absence this week, but we'll hope she remains. Apparently, according to Ed Power, writer of My Cage, My Cage characters were going to appear in Slylock Fox as well, but that aspect got nixed. Which is odd; they couldn't have looked any more out of place than the creatures in this recent police lineup.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Monday, December 10, 2007

Earl McDonnell, inspiration for dog in Mutts, dead at 18.
Universal signs deal with imeem. imeem now has deals to stream music from all four major labels. I like imeem, especially for embedding playlists in this blog, but Wired claims only 30-second samples will be available with embedded players (and sure enough, the playlist they show only has samples); imeem wants you to go to their site and see the ads before you stream whole songs--which makes sense if rumors that imeem is paying a per-song fee and not a percentage of advertising revenue are true. However, Ars Technica's article has an embedded song which streams fine. So I'm hoping that imeem's filters just aren't letting all songs stream yet, but eventually will.

Unfortunately, it looks like imeem's main problem remains: songs are still uploaded by users, so not everything is available, and quality and accuracy isn't always assured. It would be nice if the record labels provided the sites with their catalog, but still, the ability to upload and share with others any major label song is a nice thing to have.

I'm not sure how imeem is doing signing up indie labels; I just checked some previous posts, and it looks like Lee Hazlewood's last album is now streamable, but Porter Wagoner's last album still isn't streamable.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The outpouring of emotion over the passing of Al Scaduto was quite moving. The post breaking the news to the Comics Curmudgeon community has well over 200 commenters sharing their grief (and lest you think it's just people being polite in the face of mortality, the other posts this year about the various cartoon artists passing generaed nothing even approaching this; in fact, I'd say the comments on B.C.'s Johnny Hart ran pretty heavily to the negative). I spent most of yesterday pouring over the comments (until last night's poker tournament, when it was all business), and was a bit surprised how touched I was. But I was moved to see that my experience was hardly unique; I'd never heard of the strip before Josh started including it in his daily snark. I laughed at it, but also marvelled that such an anachronistic strip still exists. Gradually, I came to appreaciate its stylish art and playful language, and also cheered on with the rest of the Comics Curmudgeon community when a CC reader got an idea in the strip. I always intended to send in an idea, but due to it's unstuck-in-time nature, I guess I felt like I had forever to come up with a petty grievence to submit; now, sadly, I see that was far from true.

One thing that was particularly interesting in the comments was that, thanks be to Google, family and friends of Al Scaduto made it to the site, to share their impressions of the by-all-accounts kind and generous man. While their grief no doubt transcends the reaction of internet hipsters, it was interesting to hear his daughter's thoughts about the internet community that latched on to his strip, giving it, to borrow from another, less good-natured site, "a bizarre, ironic cult following:"

My sister Patricia and I (Debbie) have been reading your beautiful words about my father Al Scaduto this morning. When my father was in the hospital this week, I spent some time–the first time really–looking him up on the Internet. I found a site (not this one) that seemed to love him. And when he got out of the hospital, I had planned to show it to him. But then I ran across this site and saw what was being said about him and thought I better not ever let my father know what was going on on the Internet (I am sure it will come as no suprise to anyone here that my father was NOT comfortable in the computer age and wouldn’t have known how to cruise the Internet on his own). But I have changed my mind today. I would give anything for my father to see what you have written about him today. My father was the kindest, most generous, fun-loving person I knew and you all here have honored his memory with your generosity and kindness. So many of you got it right: more than being a great cartoonist, my father was a kind man. My family thanks you. Reading your words gives us great comfort. YOU all are a class act.

Please give the comments a read if you have time, and remember a good man who had a good run and will be missed by all. There's an "American Pie" parody for you in there somewhere, and some fan art, like this (and ain't it the truth; Google News turns up one news story about his passing, and it's in Italian).

Mike Lynch has updated his post with photos and memories of the man. Scaduto's funeral home has a guest book where you can pay your respects (and which notes that he lived in Milford, CT, setting of Gil Thorp--I expect a tribute strip, guy who draws Gil Thorp!).

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Al Scaduto, They'll Do It Every Time cartoonist, dead at 79. The Comics Curmudgeon commented on the news, but perhaps a more fitting tribute can be found here, with an anecdote about what a class act Scaduto was. He'll be missed, and it will be one of my disappointments in life that I never came up with an idea fitting for Scaduto to immortalize in ink.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner do "Better Move it On Home." Good stuff. Found via Digital Audio Insider.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

I checked out Lemony Snickett's new holiday story, The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story from the library today. Very delightful, and highly recommended. The story at storytime at the library was about a runaway latke, so apparently Snickett's tale derives from a traditional Hanukah story.
Controversy has been swarming in the video game community since last Friday, as the news leaked out that Jeff Gerstmann had been fired by Gamespot, a video games news and review site I rely on extensively. I first heard the news from this Penny Arcade comic, and upon learning the details (Joystiq seems to be keeping this post up-to-date with the latest news on the subject), immediately lost a lot of respect for Gamespot, and deleted their bookmark, vowing not to return (though I have, to read various posts about this very scandal).

To summarize, Gerstmann gave Kane & Lynch a bad review. Said text review was reedited, the video review was removed from the site, and Gerstmann was fired shortly thereafter. Coincidentally, the Gamespot home page was inundated with ads for Kane & Lynch at the time. The rumors quickly spread that Eidos, maker of Kane & Lynch, pulled their advertising, and pressured Cnet, parent company of Gamespot, to fire Gerstmann. Whether true or not, Gamespot's reputation has taken a major blow.

I hadn't posted about this previously, since there's plenty to be read about the issue online, and I really have no way of knowing if Gamespot really succumbed to advertiser pressure to fire Gerstmann, or if he was fired for legitimate reasons. But Joystiq has now presented a comparison of the original and edited review, and as this will probably be the only objective evidence the general public will have to determine if Gerstmann's editorial freedom was compromised, it's a major discovery. Having read the article, I am now convinced that Gamespot has no journalistic integrity.

The edited review had a disclaimer: "Editor's Note: This review has been updated to include differences between the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions and a clarification on the game's multiplayer mode." So tell me, how does changing the sentence, "So whether you're doing the shooting yourself or hanging back and letting your men do the dirty work, the game is a real letdown," to instead read, "So whether you're doing the shooting yourself or hanging back and letting your men do the dirty work, the game is a real disappointment, especially when you consider how well this same sort of stuff worked in the developer's previous squad-based game, Freedom Fighters." That to me reads more like shoehorning in praise for another of the advertiser's games than clarifying anything.

Several edits involve Gerstmann's criticism of the game for its ugliness, its gratuitous profanity, using lazy cursing for shock value and to avoid crafting gripping dialog. I had much the same reaction to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, which makes me wonder if Gamespot's corporate overlords feared similar complaints might be raised against GTA: 4, which will no doubt spend a pretty penny on Gamespot advertising. I imagine Jack Thompson would have a field day, with this evidence that the gaming community will not tolerate dissent on the issue of violence or profanity, were he not too busy being disbarred.

I will say, I don't think Eidos pressured Gamespot directly to fire Gerstmann. They pulled their ads because they didn't want to advertise on a site that says the game is crap. That's reasonable enough. I believe Gamespot themselves made the decision to fire Gerstmann, to avoid future controversy. I don't know for a fact that's what happened. But reading the changes to the review, I can only conclude that their editor's note attached the the amended review was a lie, and thus I cannot believe another word they say.