Friday, May 23, 2008

Dispatches and random observations

Back to the future -- again

When "Battlestar Galactica" ended season 3 with a sudden jump one year into the future. It was unexpected and brilliant. When "Lost" ended season 3 with a sudden fast forward to the future (actually the present) it was even more unexpected and brilliant. Then every showrunner in Hollywood quickly coopted the idea, starting with "One Tree Hill" (a four-year jump into the future) and, now, "Desperate Housewives" (a 5-year leap into the future). It was a novel way of rebooting a dead-end storyline the first two times, now it's just predictable. Expect to see every series apart from "The Simpsons" start adopting this storytelling device.

Don't miss with the Lohan...

I thought the nadir of reality TV was when a contestant defecated on a staircase in VH-1's "Flavor of Love," but I was wrong. (Random tangential thought: Would anyone actually recognize Flavor Flav if he wasn't wearing a clock larger than Ironman's heartlight?) This week sees the launch of a new show about Denise Richards and her daughters and a new show about Dina Lohan and her other daughter, Ali. (Come back Scott Baio, all is forgiven...)

In Richards' case, I guess this option offers a higher profile than starring in one of those direct-to-DVD sequels to "Wild Things." For Lohan, recent winner of a "mother of the year award" (I'm not kidding), it's a bid to turn her younger daughter into a star, Ashley Simpson style. Or is it? Rumor had it that Dina wanted a permanent slot on "The View" and has hankered after some sort of stardom herself. It's an addictive thing, fame. I don't plan to be an enabler for either woman...


Separated at birth? Johnny 5 from "Short Circuit" and "Wall*E"?

Thy 'Kingdom' comes ... at long last

This year's megablockbuster (deep breath) "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" is not in the same class as "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- but then, what is? -- yet it ably accomplishes its mission: Two hours of fun entertainment. It doesn't take itself too seriously (there are several "are you kidding me?" moments, mostly involving prairie dogs, monkeys, snakes, and Cate Blanchett) so neither should anyone else. Critical reactions have been highly mixed, but I think the Globe's Ty Burr is spot on. (If your idea of a good time at the movies is something in Farsi with subtitles, you'll want to skip this one.)

The film is a great reminder that nobody, but nobody, can direct an action set piece like Spielberg. In most blockbusters, frenetic action scenes rely on so much quick-cut editing that it's hard to get more than an impression of what's happening on screen. (Culprits include "Spider-Man III" and "Alien vs. Predator".) But Spielberg uses long takes as the camera smoothly takes in all the mayhem. It's great to see a summer blockbuster that spends more of its budget on fake cobwebs than CGI effects. That also means real stunts. There are a couple of great action sequences where you can tell that the stuntman took the day off so that Harrison Ford could test the limits of his insurance policy.

I loved how the first half of the movie has fun with the tropes of 1950s sci-fi films as well as the culture of that decade itself. It's the freshest part of the film. After that, the film lapses into the standard Indiana Jones formula and some unfortunate expository dialogue. Thankfully, the David Koepp script has some great one-liners, too. But once Indy races the Russians through the jungles of South America, the film almost manages to surpass its great opening sequence.

I do miss the real danger and unsettling suspense of the first two Indiana Jones films, though. I actually liked the heart-plucking scenes in "The Temple of Doom," which scared the bejeesus out of me as a kid. It raised the stakes for the hero, an imperative that's missing here. That said, the aging hero does come across a colony in the jungle so frightening that thousands of people will immediately cancel their holiday trips to the Amazon. And I'm not referring to restless natives, though they're present, too.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Why Scarlett is blushing....

Here's what's been on my headphones this past week:

Scarlett Johansson's debut album, "Anywhere I Lay My Head," which consists of Tom Waits covers (and one original song), is a vanity project. Turns out the actress doesn't have much to be vain about when it comes to singing. Waits may have the voice of a mud-encrusted catfish, but his vocal delivery is very expressive. By contrast, Scarlett is curiously emotionless. I was rooting for this album to be great but, in the end, it's only a triumph for producer David Sitek. Full review, here.

I'm pleasantly surprised by a new release by Curt Smith, one half of Tears for Fears. Roland Orzabal has always been the more high profile of the duo and so I imagined Smith was the Andrew Ridgley to Orzabal's George Michael. But Smith's gift for melody, not to mention a great voice, has quickly put that notion to rest. Full review, here.

Sonny Landreth's slide guitar is so good he probably makes even Derek Trucks sweat. Landreth (r.) has a new album, "For the Reach," that features guest stars such as Eric Clapton, Robben Ford, Mark Knopfler, Eric Johnson, and Dr. John. Full review, here.

I'm also knocked out by "Soul Science," the new album by Justin Adams (guitarist in Robert Plant's band, Strange Sensation) and Juldeh Camara, a Griot player from Gambia. Adams is British, but his guitar work is influenced by the sounds of West Africa. Adams and his collaborator have a natural chemistry that bubbles to a boil on cuts such as "Nayo" and "Naafigi." The second track, "Ya Ta Kayaa," sounds like Bo Diddley playing with Tinariwen. As crosscultural collaborations go, "Soul Science" rivals Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure's "Talking Timbuktu."

My favorite albums of 2008 so far: Goldfrapp -- "Seventh Tree"

Drive By Truckers - "Brighter Than Creations Dark"

Elbow -- "The Seldom Seen Kid" (l.)

No-Man -- "Schoolyard Ghosts"

R.E.M. -- "Accelerate"

Santogold -- "Santogold"

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds -- "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!"

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

A week in the life...

Here's what I've been reading, watching, and listening to over the past week.

READING: "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," Marisha Pessl's heartbreaking work of staggering genius. Her highly regarded debut novel, now in paperback, is about a precocious teen girl whose world becomes unmoored when her school teacher is murdered. What makes it such kicky fun is the narrator's conceit of turning every observation into a book reference (it's part Great Books of Western Civ. and part made-up titles and authors). Though slow off the starter blocks, the plot is terrific once it finally comes into focus. Best of all is Pessl's way with a metaphor. She's every bit the equal of a Kate Atkinson or Jodi Picoult in that department. If there's a weakness, though, it's that Pessl loads so many of them into each page that the explosions of literary fireworks are ultimately exhausting. A little less might add up to more of an impact. Still, great book and I can't wait to see what she does next.

Magazine-wise, it's the most recent issues of Variety, Word, Uncut, EW, and the new Q magazine (Madonna cover on the latter, which includes tantalizing features on Goldfrapp and why Bat for Lashes loves Kate Bush).

LISTENING TO: I'm knocked out by Santogold's debut album. Best to read my review of it, which is far more eloquent than anything I can summon at this late hour. This African-American New Yorker, suddenly the name on every hipsters lips, is a very exciting talent and her unbelievably hooky songs should, by rights, become the anthems of the summer even though Top 40 radio will stick with the anodyne Leona Lewis.

The new record by British art rock duo No-Man just dropped through the mailbox. Melancholy and infinite sadness has seldom sounded as beautiful as this latest collaboration between Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson and singer Tim Bowness.

My wife and I went to see the US debut of Amy McDonald in front of about 150 people in a bar. Barely out of her teens, the fetching singer's debut, "This is the Life," has already topped the British album charts and is due for an August release here. What distinguishes McDonald from other young Brits currently campaigning for their careers in the US is that she sings her catchy, acoustic-guitar based pop songs in a native Scottish accent. (My wife wished for "Trainspotter"-style subtitles to understand McDonald's between-song banter.) She has a very powerful voice that's often fairly deep -- a refreshing alternative to all the sopranos on radio right now. The effusive crowd was easily won over as she and her band played several terrific songs such as "Run," "My Rock and Roll" and "This Is the Life," all of which you can hear on her MySpace page.

WATCHING: I attended the final night of Boston's 48-Hour Film Festival. For those unfamiliar with these festivals, which take place all over the world now, the concept is this: Teams of filmmakers have to write, film, and edit a movie within just 2 days. The teams show up at a venue on a Friday evening and are randomly assigned a genre and a prop, line of dialogue, and character that they must incorporate into their stories. This time around, the character was a diplomat named Reginal H. Higginbotham, the prop was a receipt of some sort, and the line of dialogue was, "This is going to get complicated." Indeed. Amazing what some of these filmmakers accomplished on a budget that makes an Ed Wood film seem like that of "Titanic." The final night culled the 12 best films out of 70 plus entries and many were highly enjoyable, including the winners who, saddled with the genre of historical fiction, created an MTV spoof set around the Treaty of Versailles titled "The Real World: Versailles."

Saw "Iron Man" at the cinema. It adheres to all the superhero movie conventions -- creating the suit, the final show down with the villain, the obligatory Stan Lee cameo -- but it's great fun because Robert Downey Jr. makes it so. In fact, this is the best counter-intuitive blockbuster casting since Johnny Depp was hired for "Pirates of the Caribbean." Gwyneth Paltrow is unusually appealing, too, and does a lot with an Olsen-thin role. Great to see her in a role where she's not moping. Stay through the end credits as there is a hidden scene right at the end featuring an unbilled A-List (and sometimes B-List) actor.

And, finally, I'm watching the BBC miniseries "State of Play" on DVD. It's a political thriller about the connection between a girl who was pushed to her death on the London Tube and an assassination of a pick pocket. Much of it is set inside a newspaper newsroom with Bill Nighy (l.) playing the sort of editor I wished had. Russell Crowe is involved in a Hollywood remake costarring Helen Mirren, Rachel McAdams, and Ed Norton. Yeah, I know. Sounds like a dream cast. But we thought the same thing when Kate Winslet, Sean Penn, Jude Law, and James Gandolfini signed for the ill-advised remake of "All the King's Men." Good luck to this crew in trying to top the original "State of Play"...

A crowded house for Crowded House

It's a good thing that New Zealand's Crowded House isn't managed by a Deputy Cultural Attaché named Murray out of the New York consulate office 'coz they wouldn't get any gigs! The good managers of Crowded House have seen fit to send the band our way for the second time in less than 12 months. As I've blogged before, this quartet led by peerless melody merchant Neil Finn is one of the best live bands in the world.

For the second of show its two-night engagement in the small Somerville theater (20 minutes from Boston) the band stayed true to its tradition of unique setlists each night with a dynamic mix of brand new material, singalong favorites, and rarely played deep cuts off its 5 studio albums. When the band bounded on stage last night, they were uniformly dressed in smart suits but, oh dear, Neil's haircut looked like that of Seiji Ozawa or Worzel Gummidge. It badly needs a prune, preferably with a lawn mower.
In great spirits, the boys engaged in great stage banter and flying balsa-wood airplanes around the stage. (Crowd heckler: "Crowded House is Massive!" Neil's response as he self-consciously untucked his shirt: "I know we've all gained a few pounds around the middle but, come on, it's unfair to call us massive.") At one point, Neil tried to play his bottle of Poland Springs by blowing across the spout like pan pipes. He couldn't master it, so drummer Matt Sherrod showed him how. That prompted the rest of the band to start jamming around Matt's water bottle playing as Neil sang an old-timey song that I didn't recognize.
The foursome were playing really well and, since I was on Nick Seymour's side of the stage, I could distinctly hear his basslines and appreciate just how melodic a player he is. Sherrod's drumming is groovy and powerful. Mark Hart's guitar playing was sharp, concise, and beautiful. As for Neil, he played two incredible guitar solos during two of the new songs, "Lucky" and "Turn It Round," that rank right up there with his guitar work in "Fingers of Love" (which didn't get an airing tonight). Apart from a new song called "Beautiful Life," a piano ballad that didn't really register in the memory banks," the other three new songs we heard were outstanding, especially one called "Either Side of the World." The support act, New Zealander Don McGlashan, had some great songs in his set and he often popped on stage to add guitar, trumpet, and trombone to the songs.

Here's the setlist:
Recurring Dream (from "Afterglow" and very rare!)
Don't Stop Now
Turn It Round (new)
Lucky (new)
Private Universe
Into Temptation
Either Side of the World (new)
Whispers and Moans
Beautiful Life (new)
Pour Le Monde
Chocolate Cake (rare!)
The Only Way to Go (new)
World Where You Live
Something So Strong
Love You Till I Die (rare!)
Pineapple Head
Distant Sun
Weather With You
Don't Dream It's Over
She Goes On
Four Seasons in One Day

Friday, May 02, 2008

Young@Heart, too

In the Rolling Stones, the wrong man is named Watts. Mick Jagger is a dynamo whose megawattage could power half the Eastern Seaboard with the energy he incinerates on stage. Watching "Shine a Light," the concert film by Martin Scorsese, one understands why not even Kate Moss could squeeze into his skinny jeans, which must be size minus zero. What Jagger does on stage for several hours every night -- cobra-sway moves, Bollywood shoulder undulations, and air-traffic controller gesticulations -- is a cardio workout for him, cardiac arrest for just about everyone else. Who knew this was going to be an action movie?

But let's give Watts his due. You could set the atomic clock to his time keeping and his distinct snare sound is the envy of any drummer. The amiable and slightly goofy Ron Wood is one helluva player, scrubbing great solos out of his battleworn brown Strat. And the shambolic Keith Richards -- probably the only person on the planet who could qualify as a hair and blood donor to Amy Winehouse -- is the master of the groove and swagger. Hell, he's probably played the riff to "Satisfaction" 50,000 times and he still finds a way to give it fresh bite during this performance. (The original Jack Sparrow also sports a "Pirates of the Caribbean" badge on his coat lapel.)

Scorsese assembled the cinematographer equivalent of the Justice League -- including John Toll, Andrew Lesnie, Robert Richardson and Robert Elswit -- to bottle Jagger's lightning in this thoroughly satisfying document of a Stones gig. Like the recent "U2-3D," the beauty of the film is how it captures the interactions and personnel dynamics of a band in ways that aren't apparent when you're watching them on a stadium Jumbotron. (I've seen The Stones twice: at Wembley Stadium in the late '90s and again at Fenway Park nearly three years ago.)

The film isn't perfect. It starts with a pre-concert sequence during which Scorsese apears on screen, playing up the ambling, hyper public-persona he's been cultivating of late. It's schtick that doesn't convincingly stick. Later, archival interview footage -- much of it featuring disinterested, and uninteresting, responses to stock questions -- interrupts the flow of the concert.

Highlights? In a setlist of hits and obscure rarities, the early standouts are a forlorn "Faraway Eyes" and a rocking "She was Hot." Jack White III just about hides his nerves with his oh-so-nonchalant stage demeanor on "Loving Cup" and Christina Aguilera is scandalously attractive in just leggings and half-buttoned shirt during "Live With Me" and Jagger responds with something approximating sexual harassment (see it, here). Things really heat up when Buddy Guy lets rip with his polka-dotted Strat and a voice big enough to drown out a Swiss mountain horn on "Champagne and Reefer." The things go nuclear on "Brown Sugar" and "Tumbling Dice."