Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Westward, Ho! Watching 'The West Wing,' Season 1

In a US election year, it’s appropriate to feel a bit nostalgic for my homeland, messed up as it kinda seems to be these days. As the plastic Romney and the arrogant gargoyle Gingrich tear each other to shreds in the Republican primaries, I kind of pine for a simpler time. A “West Wing” time.

As a big presidential history buff, I watched “The West Wing” a lot when it first started on TV in 1999, and quite liked it. Yet for some reason I drifted away from paying attention to the show in the Bush years, perhaps too depressed by the real man in the White House to watch stories about the fake one. But since I finished my “Buffy/Angel” TV travels, I was looking around for something else to dig into on my TV-on-DVD time. “The West Wing” was a good candidate to gradually revisit, season by season. It was an Emmy-winning machine back in the day, but how does it stack up now?

And watching Season 1 in 2012 instead of 1999 is quite interesting. It’s a dynamic, beautifully-produced series, given punch by creator Aaron Sorkin’s now-trademark constant babble of ideas and pithy dialogue. It’s hopelessly idealistic yet not quite starry-eyed enough to just be seen as a liberal wish list. The show hasn't dated badly, other than not really referencing the Internet age, and many of the issues - gays in the military, abortion, the Middle East - remain key today. Its fictional President Josiah Bartlet (a never-better Martin Sheen), an intellectual, well-meaning liberal who has problems connecting with Middle America, is a startling doppelganger for our own President Obama. Bartlet is a heck of a lot more like Obama than he is Bush or Clinton. The parallels came often for me, right down to Bartlet being a bit of an egghead who likes to show off his knowledge, or a “transformative” sort of President who languishes in the polls.

“The West Wing” is quintessential comfort television, breezy somehow even at its most emotional, and Season 1 is all about meeting the cast of characters in the Bartlet administration and their 25-hour-a-day lives. When it gets super-political, the show doesn’t always work, and definitely leans to the left. The show is most successful in how it portrays the always-on West Wing, with its constant bustle and characters who devote their entire life to their job.

Sheen’s Bartlet is a wonderful creation, by turns cranky and messianic, forgetful and omnipotent, yet always strangely reassuring. Sorkin and crew don’t make President Bartlet flawless, and in fact he often comes off downright arrogant as in “A Proportional Response,” when grief makes the president genocidal. Sheen gives a fantastic performance, which rightly dominates the room, and it’s hard to imagine that the character of the President wasn’t originally intended to be quite so central in the series.

There are quite a few clunky bits in season 1, and it takes a while to find its tone – Sam Seaborn’s awkward relationship with a prostitute, or consultant Mandy (Moira Kelly), who is such a screechingly annoying character that it’s a pleasure to see her gradually written out into oblivion. While the interracial relationship between Barlet’s daughter Zoey and his black aide Charlie provides lots of plot fodder, it never seems convincing (when does anyone in this White House have time to date anyway?).

But although the show can get dark, it’s also often very, very funny. Allison Janney’s lovely CJ Cregg and Bradley Whitford’s wise-ass Josh Lyman deliver most of the humour. In its first season, “The West Wing” reflects America, but it’s a far more charming and engaging entertainment than the constant partisan battles in real-life Washington are these days.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Concert Review: Beirut, Auckland, January 16

A band with rousing accordion riffs, a thundering horn section and the occasional lusty tuba solo isn't the sort of act you'd think might sell out one of Auckland's top hip concert venues. But Beirut's sound defies the expected for modern pop music. Zachary Condon, the 27-year-old face behind Beirut, looks about 16 and yet channels that old-world gypsy vibe with a timeless, epic sound that sounds unearthed from sometime in the last century.

Beirut came to New Zealand for a series of great shows this week. The six-piece act are kind of world music magpies, drawing on gypsy dance, Mexican parades, French ennui and more to create a swirling sound anchored by Condon's soulful, world-weary voice and a cascading series of horns. At the Powerstation Monday night, they managed to be both epic and intimate. (Here's a few reviews by my work cohorts at the Herald and Volume magazine far superior to my own scratchings.)

I wonder if for much of the crowd Beirut affected them like they do me -- in the iPhone/Twitter age it somehow evokes an older time, a sense of legacy which often seems lacking in our live-updates-all-the-time world. Condon's lyrics often touch on the foggy border between now and then, a constant pining for an imagined ideal past. Beirut walks a fine line - their appropriation of the past and old-fashioned instruments, and Condon's youth, might make them appear too overtly hipster precious in their approach. But there's an underlying sincerity in their mournful odes and ballads.

When "Postcards From Italy" surged up -- a song I listened to a lot during the depressing days of last fall -- I felt a kind of cathartic joy, at sad sounding music that also is full of nostalgic love. Live, Beirut transformed many of their slower songs into jaunty waltzes -- the wistful "Santa Fe," the tender "Goshen." But they also unleashed the joy that music can bring - a grand voice, an accordion gurgling, a ukulele twang, or the kick of a line of horns blaring (Beirut makes the best consistent use of horns in pop music by any band since Earth, Wind and Fire). When all three horn players blasted their trumpets, horns and tubas at the same time, it's ecstatic. The rollicking folk-pop show closer, "Gulag Orkestar," was a dizzy blast, complete with tuba solo - how many rock concerts have had a tuba solo be a crowd-pleasing wrap-up?

The "Postcards from Italy" video:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nik’s Unheralded Albums #8: Milla, ‘The Divine Comedy’

There’s no reason this album should be any good, really. It’s by a former supermodel-turned-zombie-movie-actress. While Milla Jovovich has carved out a lucrative career in movies like the “Resident Evil” series and “The Fifth Element,” her 1994 debut album – and only one to date – would seem the kind of vanity project that has little to recommend it. Actors who think they’re singers clutter the used CD sections of the world – Bruce Willis and Eddie Murphy, I’m looking at you.

But here’s a surprise. Milla’s “The Divine Comedy” is actually quite good, a heavily atmospheric sampling of folksy world music pop that carries a distinct, pleasant voice. Milla pays homage to her Ukrainian homeland with an album full of mandolin, dulcimer, and cascading synthesizers. There’s an aura of blissful lovesick reverie and girlish confusion throughout many of the songs (not surprisingly, as she was only 18 when the album came out). Numbers like “Gentleman Who Fell” or “You Did It All Before” don’t sound like a lot of the other mainstream music that was coming out in 1994, and that’s what’s kept “The Divine Comedy” sounding pretty fresh years later.

There’s a gentle pastoral, broken-hearted feeling to the album, but Milla’s emotive voice and constantly surprising and rich instrumental choices keep the album ducking cliché. You can hear a heavy Kate Bush influence in her work, and the sounds of artists like Beth Orton and Tori Amos peeking around the edges.

I’ll admit I was drawn to “The Divine Comedy” by the fanciful nude portrait of Milla on the cover, but this album offers more than celeb-spotting. While I don’t imagine it sold very well, it had a decent critical response and it’s a bit surprising that in the 18 years since Milla never put out another proper album. But while this is an obscure record, it’s got a devoted fanbase -- and the mere fact I’m still listing to it fondly in 2012 is a sign “The Divine Comedy” had a happy ending.

The ‘Gentleman Who Fell’ video:

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Happy 65th birthday, David Bowie!

...One thing that happens as you get older is your idols get older, too. It's hard to believe David Bowie is of retirement age today - even though he's been semi-retired since 2004 or so. I've written about Bowie many a time before on this blog. It's fair to say I'm a mega-fan, of pretty much everything from "Space Oddity" on up to "Bring Me The Disco King." Heck, I even have a soft spot for the Tin Machine era.

His "retirement" after his last studio album, 2003's "Reality," was a surprise - no melodramatic goodbye announcement or anything, but a slow fade away. While Bowie's given us enough entertainment for several lifetimes, the selfish fan in me still hopes he might come out for one last hurrah sometime - 65 isn't quite ready for the nursing home just yet.

One of my bigger musical regrets is not seeing Bowie when he performed in Portland, Oregon in 2004 on what would turn out to be his last major tour. I foolishly thought I'd get another chance to see him, and little Peter was less than 2 months old and cash was thin on the ground. But man, now I'm thinking I might've missed my one chance to see Bowie live. I've seen most of the other musicians on my "concert bucket list" but Bowie has eluded me.

If you held a gun to my head and asked me to choose between my top three musicians of all time - Bowie, Dylan and Elvis Costello - I figure I'd have to go with Bowie, whose sheer theatrical inventiveness pushes him slightly over Misters Dylan and Costello for me. Happy 65th birthday, Mr. David Jones, wherever you are - and thanks for all the memories.

Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Close me in the dark, let me disappear
Soon there'll be nothing left of me
Nothing left to release

- "Bring Me The Disco King," the last lyrics on the last album David Bowie has released to date.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Movie Review: The Adventures of Tintin

I know we Americans apparently aren't supposed to be huge fans of Tintin, but I grew up on the intrepid quiff-haired reporter and his globetrotting adventures.

I used to devour the Tintin books from the local library until they started to fall apart. "The Broken Ear," "Tintin in America," "Destination Moon" and many more - the great Herge's art is pristine, detailed and expressive, while the cast of characters surrounding Tintin are some of the great eccentrics of comics.

But I went to "The Adventures of Tintin," the big-budget Hollywood epic, with a bit of concern. I appreciate Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson devoting so much care to bringing Tintin to the screen, and their fancy new CGI motion capture technology achieves a pretty remarkable look -- something that pays homage to Herge's crisp cartooning that isn't quite a cartoon. Jamie Bell and Andy Serkis voice Tintin and the rummy loudmouth Captain Haddock in an adventure that ties together several of Herge's stories into one narrative. Serkis, the king of motion capture, steals the show as the blustering Haddock, while Nick Frost and Simon Pegg are the amusing twin detectives Thomson and Thompson.

There's an awful lot I liked about "The Adventures of Tintin", and my nearly 8-year-old movie companion loved it. They are highly reverent to the basic characters -- Tintin still has his plus-fours and oddly ageless look and isn't carting around an iPhone or anything. The delightful "boy's own adventure" tone of Herge's work is intact, with Tintin merrily circling the globe on a detective quest that involves hidden treasures and ancient rivalries. Frequently, the animation is stunning -- particularly a show-stopping battle between pirate ships that's one of the best I've ever seen in the movies, and could probably have only been done in animation.

But there's things about "Tintin" that leave me vaguely unsatisfied.

The look, while technically an utter marvel, sometimes threw me out of the picture. Not so much Tintin and Haddock, who are just perfect quasi-realistic creations, but more the background characters or the too-rubbery Thompson and Thomson. The "dead-eye" look many CGI characters have is mostly gone here, but the background characters have this weird deformed off-putting look, which kept distracting me. Yeah, they're in Herge's style, but still.

I'm not one of those pedants who gets too worked up over movies differing from the source materials that much, but in "Tintin," the parts I liked the least tend to be the bits Spielberg, Jackson and the rest have bolted on to Herge's elegant stories. There's a little too much Spielberg in Tintin, too much over-the-top, utterly implausible action that just kind of glazes your eyes over. Almost every bit Spielberg has added on - I'm thinking the ludicrous "crane fight" for example - adds nothing to the story.

I always liked Herge's fine detail and the way his action scenes seemed real - punches really hurt, characters really bruise. Sure, there's big goofy action sequences in the comics, but here Tintin too often becomes yet another movie Superman. There's some business with a larcenous falcon or some huge motorized cranes that just goes on forever and doesn't really seem "Tintin" to me. What I liked the best are the bits of Tintin that really do stick close to the book - the meticulous treasure hunt, the wonderful Haddock/Tintin bond, the intrepid, brave Snowy. "Tintin" is a good movie, but it falls a bit short of great - perhaps the likely sequel (the movie hasn't done huge in America but is a big money-maker in Europe) will be a bit more Herge and a bit less Hollywood.