Not such a bad little tree

Courtesy Boing Boing, the Urban Outfitters version of Charlie Brown’s pathetic Christmas Tree. Someone could bring this to my house at Christmas if they were inclined (hint hint). UO has done a remarkable job of reproducing the pathos of the original animated version, though you have to supply your own security blanket:

urban outfitters charlie brown treecharlie brown animated christmas tree

However, there is some irony here: the point of Charlie Brown’s tree was that, as scrawny and pathetic it was, it was real. Urban Outfitter’s tree is “made of wire branches and plastic needles.”

Update, 2009: The current version of Charlie Brown’s tree at UO now comes with the security blanket… but is still “bendable wire branches and plastic needles.”

Review: The Frank Sinatra Show with Ella Fitzgerald

frank sinatra show with ella fitzgerald

In the late 1950s, at arguably the apogee of his cultural influence and artistic powers, the fates (in the form of Timex’s sponsorship) rewarded Frank Sinatra with a set of network television specials. The shows, classic variety shows of the old mode, featured Ol’ Blue Eyes and a variety of musical guests. In December 1959, Sinatra’s show played host to another jazz singer at the height of her career: Ella Fitzgerald.

Both singers had benefitted immeasurably from the skills of Nelson Riddle, who had spearheaded Sinatra’s return to popularity upon his transition to Capitol Records after a career slump and had arranged and conducted Sinatra’s famous “concept” albums In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning and Songs for Swingin’ Lovers, as well as dozens of singles. Riddle had also been the musical genius behind Ella’s series of explorations of American popular songs, the Songbooks. With Riddle in the orchestral pit, the show sounds like one of those Capitol recordings. This is as good as pop music got in the middle of the century.

The format of the show was simple: a little introductory song and dance—here in the form of complaints for the bad weather in Palm Springs, where the show was being shot—followed by dialog between Sinatra and Peter Lawford (who attempts to slip in a comment about his brother-in-law John F. Kennedy but is quickly cut off by Sinatra so that they don’t have to give equal time to Nixon!), a song from Sinatra, and then a commercial break. One of the genius points of this DVD is that it includes all the John Cameron Swayze Timex commercials!

After the break follow guest vocals from the a cappella quartet the Hi-Los, a comic interlude with Hermione Gingold, and finally the divine Ella. The rest of the show proceeds in much the same fashion, with additional appearances from Red Norvo, with whose quintet Sinatra frequently toured in the late 50s, and from Sinatra’s then-paramour Juliet Prowse.

It’s difficult to pick out high points in the material—it’s all pretty darned good—but to my ears Sinatra’s guest appearance with the Hi-Los on “I’ll Never Smile Again,” a reprise of his 1940 performance of the tune with the Pied Pipers and the Tommy Dorsey band, is up there. Low point? While the vocal performance of Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” is faultless, watching Sinatra sing it in “duet” with the mooning, silent Prowse is painful.

A word about the DVD itself. The image transfer is fuzzy, with lots of visual noise, with some ghosting and edge artifacts. There are also minor sound problems, particularly a level issue at the beginning and during Frank and Ella’s “Can’t We Be Friends.” The extras, including biographies and (where applicable) discographies of all the participants in the television broadcast, are comprehensive. In particular Ella’s discography is lengthy and annotated, though the formatting of the text seems to have disappeared. Similar quality problems plague the ads at the end of the disc for other material on the Quantum Leap imprint, including misspellings. In the end, the quality of the source material far outweighs these concerns.

This review was originally posted at BlogCritics.

Star Wars DVD notes

After two prequels and several years away from the original movies, it’s interesting to come back to the original (albeit in a twice-revised form; see these notes on changes to key scenes). It’s interesting that there are some things that I remembered in radically different form, to wit:

C-3PO’s dialog. The femme half of science fiction’s first gay robot duo was pretty damn bitchy in the first film. He was also inaudible a lot of the time, at least to my ears—though that may be an artifact of listening to the DVD in stereo rather than 5.1 surround. But I think there was a whole lot of snotto voce goin’ on.

The first Millennium Falcon vs. TIE Fighter battle. You know, after waiting 27 years since this movie came out, and going through two digital revisions, you’d think that they’d fix the big rectangles around the TIE fighters where they were superimposed for this sequence. Look at this picture and tell me I’m not seeing things:

But it’s a lot of fun anyway. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some documentary features to watch.

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

…I placed a pre-order for the original Star Wars trilogy on DVD. On Tuesday, the trilogy was released. Today, my pre-order was delivered.

Expect blogging to be light. For at least the next couple of days, since I don’t have six or seven contiguous hours where Lisa and I can watch it together any time tonight.

—Incidentally, am I the only one that had the Star Wars storybook with record as a kid? I remember playing that record to death. It was one of those ones where the record made a sound effect for you to turn the page—the effect was an R2-D2 sound, in this case. I mention it because Google searches on the only thing I can remember from the intro, “the hope of freedom was kept alive… but the Rebel forces were pitifully small compared to the might of the evil Galactic Empire,” turn up nothing.

Erm, geek off.

Harry Potter y tu mamá también … otra vez

Or, man am I cheesed I used the best title last time, when I first wrote about Alfonso Cuarón’s taking on the directorship of the new Harry Potter movie. Don’t let anyone tell you that …and the Prisoner of Azkaban is a kid’s film. It’s actually two films in one. One, despite everyone’s worst fears, is remarkably respectful of the book, in a way that the slavishly faithful first two films couldn’t be. One can’t respect a book when translating it into film if one doesn’t respect cinema at the same time. And the first two films, though page for page follow the first two books very closely, are so leaden-footed (and sore-ass-inducing) that they are a shambles as cinema.

The new film is actually cinema. Not only is it watchable, it’s suspenseful (I actually felt a chill down my spine when I watched Harry save himself at the end with his patronus), and in moments it approaches poetry. That’s largely due to the second film inside the first, which is an art-house hommage to the passage of time and the maturing of a lovely young girl.

Yep, HPATPOA is Hermione’s movie. Not only does it put her in her rightful place as an ass-kicking young witch who can confidently stand beside Harry and Ron; not only does it show, as Lisa said after the film, “who’s really in charge: the girl!” in the three’s friendship; it also shows her growing up. Without dwelling on it excessively, certainly without wrecking the main story, little details show her starting to deal with her feelings for her friends, especially Ron: grasping for Ron’s hand while watching Harry deal with Buckbeak, crying on his shoulder at Bucky’s apparent execution, taking in stride Sirius Black’s compliment that she is indeed the greatest witch of her age.

The few places that Cuarón lets his directorial hand show through underscore Hermione’s passage into adulthood. He indulges (thankfully for us) in some gorgeous visual poetry as the seasons change at the school and foregrounds the passing of time with the magnificent clock with the three-story pendulum and transparent face, through which Harry gazes wistfully as his friends have pivotal growing experiences without him (and don’t imagine that the trips to Hogsmeade are anything but pivotal growth experiences, even if they have little to do with the story and nothing to do with classrooms. Where else can the kids learn how to live on their own without the adults?).

Harry, of course, is already alone without adults, having lost his parents (which this movie dwells on far more than the first two), and time moves differently for him. Witness his lessons in invoking the patronus, in the middle of a giant orrery that maps the movement of the planets, or his glimpse of the wheeling galaxies as he learns he’s in (apparent) danger.

But back to Hermione. The brilliant bit that Cuarón teases out of J K Rowling’s book is that Hermione is the key to the story. As she fishes the time turner out of the front of her sweater (there’s that subtext again!), she literally takes time in her own hands in a profoundly creative act that puts time aside. It’s the only place where the momentum of the movie pauses for a bit, as key pieces of the action happen again. But it’s also a place where Cuarón can give Hermione and Harry some peaceful time alone together. And it feels ultimately like a sweet breath in the middle of the building tension.

Good on you, Hermione. I think the boys will have a lot of growing up to do to catch up with you.

Ktaabaa taab hwaa meneyh

From The Guardian, a list of potentially useful Aramaic phrases for those going to see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Funny, mostly, especially “Aamar naa laak dlaa yaada’ naa haw gavraa. B-aynaa feelmaa hwaa?” (I tell you I do not know the man. What’s he been in?) and the title of this post, which apparently translates as, “It’s not as good as the book.”

That, incidentally, is the family joke about the movie. My grandmother once went to see The Ten Commandments with my grandfather, but came back early, saying she had already read the book. I pretty much feel the same way about Gibson’s effort, which is why I haven’t seen it yet.

Longer than 4 hours 50 minutes? Oh my aching keister

A thread on Plastic collects pointers to news about Peter Jackson’s Return of the King, including a tip about the running length of the extended cut: “the DVD version of Return of the King will be longer than 4 hours and 50 minutes.”

Say what? I already had to split my viewing of the extended versions of the previous films over several nights. Looks like I’ll have to have a long weekend to actually watch the last one in a single sitting.

Who needs history?

I’ve done my share of bashing the movie Cold Mountain (before it ever came out), but I do have to raise a point (without having seen the movie) with Stephanie Zacharek’s review in Salon. The review turns on the complaint that there are only “about 12 African-Americans” in the movie.

Not to be confused with a reactionary conservative, but I must point out that there weren’t a lot of African Americans in the part of North Carolina’s Appalachian mountains where the book and movie are set. Primarily because there isn’t a lot of anything there. The economic elite owned slaves, to be sure, but the farmers who worked the land weren’t slave owning planters; for the most part, they were poor farmers working poorer land. (My father, who grew up in Madison County, recalls plowing pasture land and watching the clods raised by the plow roll straight down hill—that is, when he wasn’t digging rocks out of the soil.)

I’m not saying that Minghella’s movie isn’t flawed. But there was always more to the South than plantations, and one of the book’s strengths to me was how it illuminated the lives of these farmers and mountain folk, who were drawn into the conflict more by geography than by economics. To argue that the movie should have focused on slavery shows an astonishing ignorance about the history of the Appalachians.

Harry Potter y tu mamá también

The preview trailer for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban has been released. This is the first movie not to be directed by Chris “let’s face it, I direct children’s movies” Columbus, and the trailer shows hints of Alfonso Cuarón’s approach: the choir of children singing “something wicked this way comes,” Snape and Draco Malfoy not looking like pure villains, the generally darker cinematography, the dread hand of the Dementor… The question is, how much of it is due to the new director, and how much to the generally darker tone of the third book? Hard to tell from just a trailer, but I like the note of dark humor that I detect in the choir.

The Matrix Revolutions

A bunch of us had a “morale event” at the local cinema this afternoon to catch The Matrix Revolutions. Bottom line #1: In classic trilogy conclusion form, it attempts to pay off a lot of the set up of the first two movies, plotwise. Bottom line #2: It leaves a lot of the deep philosophy of the second movie behind in the process. Those who like a little talking with their action may think of this as an improvement; I was disappointed that so much of the deep matter of the movie was left dangling.

Cold Mountain

The trailer for Cold Mountain, based on the Charles Frazier book and starring, improbably, Jude Law and Nicole Kidman, is up. It looks pretty but sounds terrible. Question to Miramax: How much would it have cost you to send someone to the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee and find out what the authentic mountain accent sounded like? Or even searched the web for references? Clue: It’s not the accent you tried to teach your English and Australian leads.

As someone whose family grew up a few hollers over from Bear Creek, near the supposed action of the movie, I’m sadly disappointed. Somehow I don’t think we’ll be hearing cousin Bascom’s “I Wish I Was a Mole in the Ground,” which featured prominently in the book, in the movie either.