If I Could Just Get It On Virtual Paper

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Best of the Electric Company, from Shout Factory

As the cover of the box says, “if you were between six and ten years old during the ‘70s, then there is a good chance you learned to read with help from The Electric Company.” Speaking as someone who turned six in 1974 and ten in 1978, I obviously fall solidly into that group, and can attest to this show’s impact on my reading life. Credit almost certainly can be given to this inventive show, along with Sesame Street and parents who emphasized the importance of reading, for my love of the written word today.

The show was comprised of a variety of sketches that in some way made reading fun. My personal favorite was always The Adventures of Letterman, a superhero who was “Faster than a rolling ‘O’! Stronger than silent ‘E”! Able to leap capital ‘T” in a single bound! It’s a word! It’s a plan! It’s Letterman! Oh, and by the way, the character just happened to voiced by one Gene Wilder. For those who prefer to learn with big-name superheroes, Spider-Man was also a regular guest.

Another popular sketch (and another personal favorite of mine) was Easy Reader, a character portrayed by a before-he-was-an-Academy-Award-winner Morgan Freeman. Easy Reader would read everything he could lay his eyes upon and taught viewers words of the day. Another animated short, known today as Monolith, was set to the Richard Strauss composition known as Also sprach Zarathustra (best known from 2001: A Space Odyssey). It featured a big, monument type feature that crumbled as the music played to reveal a particular sound cluster (i.e. ee, oo, alk). I think it was because I was partial to classical music as a child, but I always looked forward to this portion of the show the most.

And who doesn’t remember Soft Shoe Silhouettes? Two cast members would be featured, as the title describes, in silhouette. The one on the left would pronounce one portion of a word, and the person on the right would finish it. (For example, “th - ing. Thing.”)

Along with the aforementioned Freeman, other regulars on the show included Rita Moreno (hers was the voice that shouted the memorable “Hey you guys!” at the beginning of the episodes), Bill Cosby, Skip Hinnant (known in other venues as the voice of the X-rated Fritz the Cat) and Denise Nickerson (Violet Beauregard from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

The good news for people like myself who have extremely fond memories of the show is that Shout Factory has released a “best of” set, which includes all of the wonderful, creative sketches we loved as children. Twenty of the best shows are included, along with special features such as cast interviews, show trivia, episode introductions from Rita Moreno, outtakes, and plenty more. I was especially thrilled to find both the stuff I adored and the things I’d forgotten was terrific in the box. It’s a fantastic set and isn’t simply for the nostalgic. Now those same people who grew up with the show can enjoy it with their children. What a wonderful way to learn.

Monday, February 20, 2006

50 Book Challenge

Book #5: Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs

I am just not a fan of the memoir, I guess.

I decided to pick this book up on the recommendation of several people whose opinions I respect and also because it's being adapted into a film that will be released later this year. I was hoping for something irreverent and quirky, and I suppose it was, but not in a way that moved me.

The trouble I really have with memoirs - that is, current-day memoirs along this lines of this one, James Frey's recent brouhaha-raising story, and Judith Moore's Fat Girl - is that they just revel in the horrible, horrible things that happened to the protagonist (i.e. the real-life author of the book). I simply don't enjoy reading about other people's misery, even if it's couched in a "ha ha, isn't this funny" tone like Burroughs uses. It's nearly impossible to feel compelled to keep reading about Burroughs' teenaged experiences with a 30-something boyfriend. I suppose the good news is that Burroughs' mother and legal guardian were okay with the relationship, but it gives me the heebie jeebies.

Even worse, though, are the frequent references to defecation in all its many forms. I *really* don't need to be reading about a man who thinks his poo is predicting the future. It's not funny, it's not interesting, and it doesn't really add anything to the story.

The honest evaluation is that I disliked the book so much, I could hardly wait to finish it so I could sell it on Half.com. Thankfully, it sold the day I put it on the market. I feel pretty confident that I'm not going to want to see the movie adaptation, regardless of the pedigree of the cast (Annette Bening, Gwyneth Paltrow, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes) and the creativity of its director/writer (Nip/Tuck creator Ryan Murphy).

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Sugarcubes - Live Zabor

Although I've never been a particular fan of Bjork or the Sugarcubes, I have to admit that this concert DVD does a lot to make me like them. For those unfamiliar with the group, the Sugarcubes were together for a brief period during the breakout of alternative rock as a genre. The Icelandic sextet's centerpiece was, of course, Bjork, who has an almost impossible energy and intensity that the others feed from.

The performances on this DVD were taken from concerts in London Astoria in May of 1988, Auburn, Alabama in October of 1988 and Reykjavik Akureyri in May of 1989. The songs performed include Planet, Cowboy, Mamma, Cold Sweat, Cat, Birthday, Delicious Demon, Motorcrash, Plastic, Eat the Menu, Speed Is the Key, Deus and Luftgitar. What makes this DVD unique is that in between performances, each member of the band is interviewed - and that interview always has a direct link and segue into the song that is to follow. It's an extremely trippy approach, particularly when Bjork takes apart her television in an effort to find out if there might be a way the things coming from inside it could be invading her mind.

I'm sure that fans of both Bjork and the Sugarcubes will find this DVD to be an invaluable addition to their collection. The transfer of the shows is not particularly crisp or strong, but I attribute that to the age of the shows rather than any real fault of Rhino, the creators of the DVD. In fact, I'd even say that the video quality lends a bit of an air of authenticity and intimacy. It's a frenetic sampling from one of the most original, unique bands from the alternative wave and a quirky way to spend an hour or so.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Fade to Red: Tori Amos Video Collection

How terrific is this DVD set? I’ve already spent hours with it, from enjoying the videos and the music in their own right to wrapping myself up in Amos’ commentary, which accompanies each video. For those who have been following the ethereal singer from her earliest years, Amos’ videos consistently are inventive, captivating and unique. From the early videos such as “Silent All These Years” and “Dear God”, the innovation in these short films has been thought provoking and daring.

As far as the most striking pieces of the DVD set, the first song, “Past the Mission” is a powerful statement about the rights of women in other countries. “Crucify”, and “Cornflake Girl” are entertaining, toe-tapping affairs. “A Sorta Fairytale” features Amos and Adrien Brody as a pair of mismatched lovers (he is a hand; she is a foot) who are finally able to find an understanding and middle ground due to sheer determination. And “God” features a variety of themes pertaining to religion and theology, including a full-blown snake handling church service.

As I mentioned before, the DVDs have fine extras, including the UK video version of Cornflake Girl, a remix called Professional Window, and commentary on every video from Amos. It’s fascinating to hear her discuss where the germination for both the songs and the videos originated – one video was conceived after the L.A. riots; “Talula” is a celebration of Southern living.

Fans of the singer should strongly consider making this outstanding set part of their personal collection. She’s luminous in the videos, and the creativity involved in their creation is impressive.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

50 Book Challenge

Book #4: Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens

I like Dickens tales. There's something entirely comfortable about them, from the local dialects to the explorations of iniquity to the always oh-so-coincidental finales. Oliver Twist is no exception. I'll cover it more in a forthcoming column, where I'll compare the classic book to the recent Roman Polanski adaptation.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

All-American Girl: Complete Series

Many people know Margaret Cho for her raucous, occasionally filthy comedy routines that have produced such concert films as Notorious C.H.O and Assassin. What fewer people remember is that back in the mid '90s, some television network suits found her comedy stylings funny enough that they developed an entire show around her frequent premise - growing up with a madcap Korean family in America. That show was called All-American Girl and while it wasn't consistently perfect (when Margaret moves away from her family and with a group of guys, things go downhill), it does nicely showcase her blend of humor.

The show's central focus was the culture clash between the young, hip Margaret, a 21-year-old Korean girl who completely buys into the pop culture and trends of the U.S. Her mother, on the other hand, was extremely traditional. For those who are a little more up to date on current television, their relationship was more or less on the same level as that of Lane and her mother on Gilmore Girls - with similar issues and conflict occurring at every turn.

Along with Margaret and her mother, the characters included Stuart, Margaret's straight-laced older brother; Eric, the younger brother who looked up to Margaret; Dad, who stayed out of the way of the battles of the women; and Grandma, a woman who might have been either senile or brilliant - it was difficult to know for certain. The family owned a bookstore, but Margaret worked at a department store cosmetics counter (which naturally agitated her mother as well).

While I won't sugarcoat things to say that the show was an instant classic (it was canceled after a season), but it had cute moments and embraced Asian-American culture at a time when few networks would even have considered such programming. I was a regular viewer, as I had enjoyed Cho's comedy act and found the crossover to be pretty effective. Now that the complete series has been released on DVD, viewers can decide for themselves.

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