See It/Flee It: Crimes Against Humanity

See It: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency

Everything about this seven-episode BBC series has been done to death – the friendly sleuth with a god-given talent for nabbing bad guys, a buttoned-up sidekick, burgeoning love interest and turbulent past. Except for the setting, that is. Like the Alexander McCall Smith novels it’s based on, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency is set in Botswana, a country in Southern Africa. And the fact that it was also shot there gives the show its soul – for all of its lighthearted touches and lovable characters, it’s the stunningly beautiful backdrops and unique cultural/geographical elements that stick with you. In the middle of figuring out a mystery, main character Mma Ramotswe – played with down-to-earth vibrancy by Jill Scott – stops to watch a pair of giraffes roaming a few feet from her car. The culprit of a long-running mystery turns out to be a roving band of baboons. When Ramotswe trails the daughter of a wealthy client, she’s led through a bustling open-air market of kaleidoscopic colors. Not to say there’s nothing else to offer than the window dressing here. The mysteries are cleverly constructed, especially a classic poison-related whodunit, and it’s impossible not to root for Ramotswe – to get her business off the ground, solve every case that comes her way, and stand strong when a dark period of her past rears its ugly head. But as much as you’ll love this lady detective, her native country is the real star.

Flee It: The Lovely Bones

After spending a decade in the ether of massive CGI blockbuster-dom, director Peter Jackson and his loyal co-screenwriters, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, must have thought it was time to scale things back a bit – hence their adaptation of The Lovely Bones, the Alice Sebold novel that got to the guts of the grieving process in such an engaging way. Unfortunately, the hopelessly trite, saccharine mess they made of Sebold’s work proves they should stick to the fantastical. Jackson’s film doesn’t get beyond a back-of-the-DVD-case synopsis of the story – 14-year-old Susie Salmon is brutally murdered by a neighbor, after which her spirit goes to “the in-between,” a place between earth and heaven that allows her to watch over the people she loves, as well as her murderer. Most of the novel is concerned with how Susie’s family and friends deal with their intense grief, each in their own way. Jackson chooses to either eliminate or gloss over 90% of this insightful human struggle, making it awfully hard to sympathize with these characters – which shouldn’t be a tall order for a story with this kind of dramatic heft. Part of the problem is Mark Wahlberg, whose sad, dopey take on Susie’s father is completely unwatchable. Everybody else is a composite – Jackson apparently deemed the mother’s character unworthy of attention; Susie’s egghead love interest Ray Singh becomes pointless eye candy; Ruth Connors, the artsy outcast obsessed with the spirits of murdered girls, is barely present. And for what? A pile of god-awful, candy-coated CGI sequences of Susie frolicking in “the in-between.” And one unforgivably flaky moment, nowhere to be found in the novel, that depicts Susie’s spirit making a dead flower blossom in her father’s hands. Scenes like these make Jackson’s intentions clear – his Lovely Bones is so enamored with the supernatural, it doesn’t bother to remind us how it feels to be alive.

What’s in my Discman, May 2010

I’m really into albums from 1971 these days, for some reason. I guess I’m just swept up in the memories they inspire – you know, me at -7, eating Tootsie Pops and playing four square while living in the twinkle of my pappy’s eye.

Paul & Linda McCartney – Ram

Like any aspect of Beatles history, the band’s attempt to get back to its roots on its muddled-with-patches-of-brilliance swan song, Let It Be, has been analyzed to death. But you don’t need an insider biography to tell you that Paul McCartney was leading this charge towards stripped down rock and blues constructions. All you need as evidence are his first two solo records, 1970’s jarringly spare McCartney and 1971’s Ram. The latter is the much stronger album, presenting the ideal mixture of the farmhouse rusticity Macca was obsessed with and the gloriously produced melodies that have always been his strong suit. You’ve got the unadorned Delta blues of “3 Legs” and the light, scatman folk of “Heart of the Country,” as well as the beautiful Beach Boys harmonies of “Dear Boy” and the looking-ahead-to-Wings power ballad “Back Seat of My Car.” Unlike any other McCartney album, Ram never goes to extremes; even Linda’s hopelessly flat back-up vocals fit the homestyle milieu. The Cute One went on to do some great things, but he never again made an album as balanced as this.

Bill Withers – Just As I Am

Bill Withers is the quintessential R&B folksinger, and this, his debut album, is prime evidence to back up that claim. Over the course of a dozen tracks, the music world was introduced to the steady, hypnotic bluesiness of Withers’ voice, his soul-infused acoustic guitar playing, and the gut-wrenching drama of his songwriting. Withers tells gripping stories as easily as he delivers those buttery vocal runs – “Grandma’s Hands” mourns the loss of a matriarch; “I’m Her Daddy” is the stirring plea of a man who realizes he has a six-year-old daughter; “Better Off Dead” is a suicide note from an abusive alcoholic. Producer Booker T.’s arrangements are subtle and tasteful throughout, letting Withers’ glue-you-to-your-seat tunes carry the day – just thinking about “Ain’t No Sunshine” gives me goosebumps.

David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World

Few artists have dabbled with as many different styles as David Bowie. But until I heard The Man Who Sold The World, I didn’t realize that prog-rock and early metal were on the list. Before the pop perfection of Hunky Dory or the conceptual, glammed-out brilliance of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders From Mars, there was this album – a loud, roughshod recording dominated by huge guitars and huger concepts. “Running Gun Blues” is an unflinching Vietnam critique, “All the Madmen” a harrowing depiction of a man about to be released from a sanitarium, “Saviour Machine” a plea from a governmental leader to help him kick his power addiction. It’s all bathed in chugging Sabbath riffage and epic early-Zeppelin arrangements – while the towering melodies and glamorous sensibilities of classic Bowie are ever-present, the guy never rocked harder than he does here.

Cheeky Monkee

At one point last Friday evening, my wife and I were sitting in the third row of the very intimate Bear’s Den Showroom (within Seneca Niagara Casino), and Davy Jones was on stage with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, caressing one of his rather pert bosoms in his hand. “When I was a kid, I didn’t know about man boobs!” the ’60s teen idol exclaimed, inspiring a mix of riotous laughter and uncomfortable stares from the crowd. It was possibly the most surreal live concert moment I’d experienced, beating the previous one by a mile (seeing Live singer Ed Kowalczyk get hit in the head with a shoe). It’s also a bit of a microcosm of what this show was like – loads of funny, awkward comedic moments crammed in-between carefree renditions of Monkees classics. Jones isn’t a comic genius by any stretch, but he is a sparkling personality – coming from him, lame one-liners (“We’re getting lots of requests tonight, but we’re gonna sing anyway!”; “I have three daughters, all girls.”) became endearingly silly things. And the music was great – sunshiny hooks, connect-the-dots lyrics and big, boisterous harmonies. From the ’60s pop classics to those 64-year-old moobs, it was a feel-good night all around.

You can read my review (which avoids mention of the Jones boobage), if you so wish.