Saturday, December 27, 2008

The best albums of 2008

In all, I reckon 2008 has been a fabulous year for music. My favorite band, Marillion, released a masterpiece that ranks as my fave record of the year. Below are the best records I heard in 2008, which are uncannily similar that of Uncut magazine.

1) Marillion -- Happiness is the Road
2) Shearwater (pictured) -- Rook
3) Fleet Foxes -- Fleet Foxes
4) Steven Wilson -- Insurgentes (The Porcupine Tree leader's solo record is released Feb. '09)
5) Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever
6) TV on the Radio -- Dear Science
7) Elbow -- The Seldom Seen Kid
8) No-Man -- Schoolyard Ghosts
9) Goldfrapp -- Seventh Tree
10) Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds -- Dig!!! Lazarus Dig!!!

(In no particular order)
11) Coldplay -- Viva La Vida (Prospekts March version)
12) Richard Barbieri -- Stranger Inside
13) Opeth -- Watershed
14) The Cure -- 4:13 Dream
15) Justin Adams & Judah Caldeh -- Soul Science
16) Drive By Truckers -- Brighter than Creation's Dark
17) Brian Eno & David Byrne -- Everything That Happens
18) Sigur Rós - Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust (did I spell that correctly?)
19) The Mummers -- Tale to Tell
20) Toumani Diabate -- The Mande Variations

Great songs from other albums:

Santogold -- Les Artistes
Verve -- I See Houses
Keane -- Falling Down
Death Cab for Cutie -- I Will Possess Your Heart
Ryan Adams -- Magick
Brian Eno & David Byrne -- Strange Overtones
Gary Moore -- Preacher Man Blues
Joseph Arthur -- She paints me Gold
Peter Gabriel -- Whole Thing
REM -- Accelerate
She & Him -- Why Do You Let Me Stay Here
Jenny Lewis -- Acid Tongue
Oasis -- Shock of the Lightning
My Morning Jacket -- Evil Urges
Metallica -- Broken, Beat, and Scarred
AC/DC -- Black Ice
BB King -- How Many More Years
Sheryl Crow -- Motivation
B52s -- Eyes Wide Open

Sunday, December 14, 2008



As someone who owns the complete back catalogue of both Joe Satriani and Coldplay, I was aghast at reports that the guitarist is suing the band. Satch's claim: "Viva La Vida" uses "substantial" portions of his song, "If I Could Fly." This is the second instance of someone claiming that the song is a ripoff of another tune. An obscure band called Creaky Boards created a similar fuss and even accused Chris Martin of attending of their shows. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if Toumani Diabate asserted he'd written "Viva La Vida" first.

But, I gotta admit that the bald guitarist -- renowned for having fingers a stenographer would envy -- seems to have a viable case. This side-by-side comparison, followed by a mashup of the two pieces, reveals an uncanny similarity.

But Coldplay may have a viable alibi. Can you imagine the Brit soft rockers ever listening to a Joe Satriani record? Guitarist Jonny Buckland, who I interviewed years back, seems more likely to have been influenced by The Edge. Moreover, when Coldplay knicked a riff from Kraftwerk's "Computer Love" for its "Talk," they made sure to get permission from the Germany's Max Headroom gang first. Coldplay seem like honest types. I've also interviewed Satriani and he's a standup guy not prone to pulling publicity stunts and, hell, if Satriani called this musicologist to the witness stand it might be akin to the gotcha moment in a Perry Mason episode.

Friday, November 28, 2008

From Heroes to Zeros

A curious property of the DVR: It reveals what your true TV priorities are. I recently sat down to watch an episode of "Heroes," a show I've watched since it first aired, and I found that I couldn't bring myself to press the "play" button. I had the epiphany that I no longer cared about the show or its characters.

Season 3 has recycled the plots and subplots of earlier episodes. The future is yet again threatened by apocalypse. Hiro, who should be a kick-ass sumurai warrior by now, is still about as threatening as a panda. And Claire again has daddy issues ... again. (Someone save this cheerleader, please!) Entertainment Weekly seems to have noticed that the show is in a rut, too. (Wait, didn't creator Tim Kring already promise that he'd fix the show earlier this year?) "Heroes" may pull itself out of a nosedive just a "Lost" did last season. But until that happens, if it happens, the episodes are going to pile up like so many Tetris blocks on my DVR.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Aussiewood woes

Australia has produced a disproportionate number of A-list stars: Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Heath Ledger, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, and Cate Blanchett. So why is Aussiewood unable to retain its talent or even lure Australians to see homegrown films?

My latest story takes a look at the Antipodean industry's deep-rooted problems as well as its hopes to boomerang back on to the world stage with films such as "Australia" and government restucturing of its various film agencies.

The last time an Australian film of particular note made an impact on US screens was probably "Lantana." The Dec. 5 release of a Toni Collette dramedy called "The Black Balloon" could make a similar splash on the art house circuit if US critics embrace it as much as Australian reviewers.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Music roundup

Here's a batch of new album reviews, including my take on AC/DC's riff-tastic "Black Ice," Jenny Lewis's bittersweet "Acid Tongue," Ryan Adams's country-rockin' "Cardinology," and the piano pop of Keane's "Perfect Symmetry."

Best of all: Marillion's "Happiness is the Road," a double album with more diverse elements than the Periodic Table.

Check out its lead single, "Whatever is Wrong With You" for free here.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Pop culture will shape W.'s legacy

What would the ideal American president look like? The public’s idea of what qualities the president should embody is very apparent in pop culture. The occupant of the oval office has also come to be seen as almost a superhero figure – here in Los Angeles there are dozens of posters of Barack Obama in a Superman outfit -- and we’ve seen image in pop culture in movies such as “Air Force One” and “Independence Day.”

The president has also been presented as a sage elder with supreme wisdom in TV series such as “The West Wing.” And the president has also come to be seen as an uber celebrity – JFK, Reagan, and Clinton all had star power.

But pop culture, for the most part, has not been kind to George W. Bush, as I wrote in my latest piece.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

A new endangered species: music critics

I recently attended a forum about the future of (professional) critics that was held at the USC Annenberg school for Communication. A number of top critics were on the panel, including LA Times music writer Ann Powers and EW's Chris Willman. For the most part, the writers lamented the decline of readership in the Internet age and how the general devaluation of critics in print publications.

I recently wrote about this phenomenon and so David Browne, formerly head music critic for EW, and now a full-time author (most recently of the definitive Sonic Youth biography
"Goodbye Twentieth Century") sent along the following trenchant observation about the state of music criticism:
"Hey Stephen: Very interesting piece--I was wondering when someone
would write about the decline in music critics in the same way they've
covered the falloff of film and TV critics. Consider yourself a
pioneer! I bet lots of people will read this--and then write their own
versions. So good for you.

I would add one note to the piece: The problem with music criticism
isn't just the influx of Internet voices--it's the fact that those new
voices are actually opinionated. "Music criticism" in most print
publications is, to me, dead. It's over. Everything is three-stars and
up. Everyone champions everything. When was the last time you read a
mixed review of a major new release in RS, Blender, Spin, Paste, etc.
etc.,,etc.? It's very, very sad. At least the Stereogums and blogs
of the world will tell you if something is good or sucks. No one else
does anymore."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Pure animal magnetism

The album art for Metallica's new album, "Death Magnetic," is fantastic. So is the music for the most part. I know that they're the grandfathers of death metal, but isn't it time that these guys found some new lyrical themes now that they're in the forties? Still, it's good to hear these guys returning to what they do best.

Full review (as well as reviews of new albums by The Verve and David Byrne + Brian Eno) here.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Good news about 'Good News'

Kate Atkinson, author of "Case Histories," a book Stephen King dubbed "the best mystery of the decade" in EW, is about to release her new book, "When Will There Be Good News?"

In my review of the book, I wrote: "As with the previous two installments, 'Case Histories' (2004) and 'One Good Turn' (2006), Atkinson’s latest mystery is the literary equivalent of an MC Escher drawing in its labyrinthine, yet holistic, architecture."

The rest of the review, here:

I interviewed Atkinson 2 years ago about what she was reading, watching, and listening to then. Her answers, here.

And the Oscar for best actor goes to ... Mickey Rourke?

Over the past 24 hours, the various agents representing Lorenzo Lamas, Jean Claude van Damme, and the two Feldmans -- Corey and Haim -- have been repeat dialing Darren Aronofsky's phone.

Ok, I can't state that's 100% true, but it's certainly possible now that the director of "The Wrestler" has miraculously done a Lazarus on Mickey Rourke. The all-but-forgotten actor can afford to swagger once again now that he seems certain to get nominated for Best Actor. (Just imagine what Aronofsky could do for Mike Myers' career.*)

"The Wrestler" has won top honors at Venice. And it arrives at Toronto heralded by reviews in Variety and The Reporter that, between them, pretty much drained the dictionary of every known superlative in the English language in describing Rourke's performance. (Rourke was the best thing in "Sin City," too, but no one recognized him in all those shadow-obscured facial prosthetics.)

So, on paper at least, strong contenders for Best Actor 2009 seem to be: Rourke, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Penn, and Brad Pitt. Given that these things are really a popularity contest that come down to carefully orchestrated electoral campaigns -- the McCain/Palin ticket really needs to hire Rogers & Cowen to see how it's done -- The Golden Boy will walk away with it for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button." Unless, that is, the mega-megabudget film turns out to be as much a flop as "Meet Joe Black." The press -- and Gil Cates -- will be praying that Angelina Jolie will also walk away with gold on the same night for "The Changeling." That storyline would trump even Phelps's 8 medals. (Don't worry, the Jolie-Pitts can more than afford the 8 babysitters they'll need for the night.)

Marisa Tomei, meanwhile, seems to be dishing out some sweet revenge to everyone who claimed she unfairly won an Oscar. Her once-promising A-list status faltered soon after and it seemed her lot would be a lifetime of Lifetime TV movies. Instead, Tomei is going for broke at this stage of her life, taking off her clothes and taking on unglamorous roles in "Before the Devil Knows You're Dead" and now "The Wrestler." (The balding blabbermouth in the trench coat at the front of the ticket line? That'll be George Constanza.) I expect we'll see Tomei back on the red carpet at the Kodak theater next year.

* Quentin Tarantino, the patron saint of lapsed careers, has reportedly offered Myers a role in "Inglorious Bastards."

Friday, September 05, 2008

What does your iPod say about you?

My friend Robin over at Cinnamon and Honey recently picked up on a feature called "What Does Your Music Say About You and Do You Care?" You can see her answer to the questions, which she originally picked up from Licensed to Blog. In the meantime, I thought I'd settle down on the couch with my iPod for some self analysis:

If someone new were in your car, what song on your player would you be quickest to skip out of embarrassment?
Why, the Best of Engelbert Humperdinck's "Lesbian Seagull," of course! Ok, I'm just kidding - that's not on my iPod. (Maybe that fake answer is my way of softening you up for my real answer ;-) It would probably ZZ Top's "Woke Up With Wood." Yeah, I'm blushing, too.

What song or songs is/are most “atypical” on your player?
Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Warriors of the Wasteland (remix version)." The only reason I have this -- and this tells you how geeky I am -- is that my all-time favorite guitarist, Gary Moore, played on that record as a session musician and I'm a completist of all Moore's prolific work since 1970.

What song(s) on your player turns you on?
You mean, like, in a Marvin Gaye dim the lights and let's get it on kind of way? Ooh, er... Well, it would have to be something by Kate Bush. My favorite female singer (just edging out Bjork, Joni Mitchell, Liz Fraser, and Toni Childs) exudes velvet sensuality in an unusually intimate, yet unself-conscious, way. As I type I'm listening to the title track of her late-career masterpiece, "Aerial" (one of the great albums of the 00's), and the track "Nocturn," about a moonlit swim is unbelievably sexy and segues into the title track, which has a downright carnal backbeat and a feral vocal at the end. Natacha Atlas's voice can have a similar effect! Maybe because I always remember her sultry belly dance at Wembley Arena when Atlas +Transglobal Underground supported Page & Plant in 1998.

If you wanted to get a member of the opposite sex in the mood, what song would you program to come on when they are in the car?
A romantic song by Marillion. The British band's singer, Steve Hogarth, rivals Robert Plant as my all-time favorite vocalist. His voice has a "zero to 60 in just 4 seconds" effect on many women because, well, he not only has an incredibly beautiful voice but he really lays himself emotionally bare on record. Listening to him is an uncommonly intimate experience because it's obvious he's feeling the lyrics and not faking it. Here's a 1993 track that could set the mood... (Free Marillion plug: go here and download Marillion's playful and unbelievably catchy new single for free at the bottom right corner - no email address or registration required.)

What is the longest song on your player?
Porcupine Tree's "The Sky Moves Sideways (alternate version)." It's over 34 minutes long which means that I practically have to schedule an appointment in my Outlook calendar to listen to it. Come to think of it, I might have a bootleg version of Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused" that comes in at 42 minutes somewhere.

What do you think is the silliest song on your player?
I head straight for Frank Zappa. How about "Stink Foot," "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow," or "St. Alfonso's Pancake Breakfast"? I have more outlandish, and unmentionable, Zappa tunes in my CD collection...

What did you most recently add to your player?
"Everything that Happens Will Happen Today," Brian Eno + David Byrne's longawaited followup to their 1981 classic, "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts." And, at first blush, I am smitten with this new collaboration, which is a radical departure from the last record. Wow! A few days before that I bought a King Crimson recording of a concert they played last week.

What did you most recently delete?
The Beatles "Love" album. It's good, but familiarity breeds, etc....

What is your favorite song on your player that is from a movie?
It's a tossup between John Williams's "Superman March" and Thomas Newman's theme from "American Beauty." And if I currently had any Ennio Morricone on the Pod, I'd have to completely reconsider my answer to this question.

Is there a song on your player that is only there for someone else’s benefit?
For my ears only... (that's not the title of a Bond theme tune, btw.)

What song or artist do you find yourself skipping most frequently and therefore should probably delete?
Amadou & Mariam. I love this Malian duo, but I have overplayed their tremendous "Dimanche A Bamako" album.

Without cheating, start your player and list the first 10 songs that come up in random play.
So far, my answers haven't showcased the sheer diversity of music on my player. So, please don't let down iPod:

"Days" (David Bowie)
"Ataronchronon" (Boards of Canada)
"City Headache" (Scott Matthews)
"Hands Born Dirty" (Joseph Arthur)
"You Don't Need Anyone" (Marillion)
"Stars" (Ulrich Schnauss)
"Turn Me Loose" (It Bites)
"High (live)" (The Cure)
"Trains" (Porcupine Tree)
"All Sweet Things" (No-Man)

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

These devils wear Prada

Here in L.A., where entertainment-related billboards turn streets into gaudy arcades, no current advertising campaign snags more eyeballs than CW's "Gossip Girl." The movie-screen posters are simple: Portraits of young hotties in steamy situations straight out of the Zalman King pornbook. The accompanying taglines, acting as come ons, are lifted from media reviews of the show: "Every Parent's nightmare" -- The Boston Herald; "Very Bad for you" -- The New York Post; "Mindblowingly inappropriate" -- The Parents Television Council. (I got a kick out of the jab at the PTC, the advocacy group that lobbies for TV censorship under the guise of protecting -- what else? -- the children.)

Though clearly not aimed at a 3osomething person, the ad campaigns almost persuaded me to tune into "Gossip Girl" tonight. Well, that and the presence of the not-unattractive star, Blake Lively. But I just couldn't pull the remote-control trigger. Fact is, even Robin Leach would be hard-pressed to care about a show about the lifestyles of the (young) rich and famous. Truth is, I've been thinking a lot lately about how today's youth-targeted television is worryingly smitten with materialism and wealth. From "My Super Sweet 16" to "The Hills" to "90120," we're supposed to care about protagonists who can afford to pour Verve Cliquot into their cereal and spread their toast with caviar. In the case of "Gossip Girl," the pretty teens face problems such as relationship squabbles, treacherous affairs, and the rise and fall of bitchy queen bees. Ooh, life is tough in The Hamptons.

The belated return of "90210" is a reminder that shows about the wealthy have long been with us. Why Aaron Spelling built an entire empire (and an indoor bowling alley in his mansion) on such fare. But in this golden era of television when so many shows boast smarter writing, bigger ideas, and story arcs as complex as an A.S. Byatt novel, is it too much to expect more substance than materialism from programs aimed at teens?

Obsession with wealth and its accoutrements are very much embedded in US culture, of course. That aspiration is apparent in every flash of diamand-carated bling that one sees on the fingers, wrists, and ears of inner-city youth. But how about a teen-oriented show about ordinary folks that seems more in touch with these times of Obama populism? How about a show about working-class people (and, no, I'm not calling for a return of "Married with Children"). After all, the greatest show in television history -- "The Wire" -- was so compelling precisely because it presented a multifaceted understanding of the underclass (both cops and street-corner drug dealers) and the very real difficulties they face. There's innate drama in the desperation of people who live from paycheck to paycheck.

Of course, defenders will doubtless claim that "Gossip Girl" shows that even money doesn't bring happiness. But I very much doubt that the creators of "The O.C." have given us "The Great Gatsby 2.0."

Monday, August 25, 2008

Meet American Idol's new judge

Big changes afoot in "American Idol" following the departure of dapper dancer -- and AI producer -- Nigel Lythgoe. Following last season's rating's slippage, the remaining producers of "American Idol" seem all-too-aware that Randy has uttered, "yo, dawg, check it out" one time too many, and that Simon seems worn out by Paula's Pollyanna-ish compliments.

Now, the producers have announced that Kara DioGuardi --songwriter for hire for the likes of Celine Dion, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Avril Lavigne, Faith Hill, The Jonas Brothers, and Christina Aguilera, to name but a few -- will join the panel of judges. The addition of DioGuardi, who is the 00's answer to Diane Warren, is an inspired choice as you'll see from this profile interview that I commissioned last year.

It's a great first step to reform the "American Idol" format. And it's a relief that DioGuardi's discography doesn't include any songs for Sanjaya....

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Whole Lotta Olympics

What an Olympics it's been. Michael Phelps can give up swimming now that he walks on water in the eyes of the world. For me, the most amazing spectacle -- other than the opening ceremony -- was watching Usian "lightning" Bolt, the giant Jamaican sprinter with grasshopper legs, casually stride to a world record 100 meters without even running at his full capacity. Memo to Hollywood casting directors: Outfit this guy in a red superhero suit for a movie version of The Flash and you won't need to spend a dime on special effects.

Great to see Jimmy Page riffing "Whole Lotta Love" during the closing ceremonies in a duet with Leona Lewis. A surprise collaboration, you say? Well, not so much when you consider that the riffmeister has hooked up with Puff Daddy (as he was known back then) and David Coverdale.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Few things in life are free, except new songs

It's the new music-business model -- call it a half-Radiohead -- give away the first single from your new album as a taste of what to expect. For Coldplay and now Keane (see below), free MP3s have been chosen to make a statement, namely, "our new stuff is adventurous rather than the same 'ole, same 'ole."

Herewith, pointers to a few fresh freebies out there.

The brand new single by Marillion, one of my fave bands, is so catchy that you'll need a lobotomy to dislodge it from your head. Visit this site to download "Whatever is Wrong With You" (download is at the bottom right-hand side of the page -- no information or email address needed). It's the lead-off single from October's double album, "Happiness is the Road."

Visit for a free download of "Death Will Never Conquer," a jaunty acoustic ditty sung by drummer Will Champion, doing his best Chris Martin impression. The song has been a staple of the band's acoustic set on tour.

Richard Barbieri
Porcupine Tree keyboard player Richard Barbieri has a new solo album, "Stranger Inside," coming out Sept. 30. The musician, a former cohort of bassist Mick Karn and David Sylvian in the new wave art-rock band Japan, is making an excellent 8-minute track titled "Hypnotek" available to those who sign up to receive more information here. Richard's previous solo album, "Things Buried," is an electronica album that feels more organic than synthetic and it'll take you places you don't normally visit with a pair of headphones.

The British trio, renowned for their clean-lines of piano pop. take a left swerve on "Spiralling." Available for free until 11 a.m. on Monday August 11 at, this first single off "Perfect Symmetry" is a shot across every music critic's bow.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The dogged days of August

It's been a little quiet on the blog front of late, I'm afraid. The main culprit: A move from Boston to Los Angeles next week and hectic deadlines at work. But here's a roundup of what I've been reading, watching, and listening to over the past month.

WATCHING: Last night's opening ceremonies at the Olympics qualify as the 8th wonder of the world. I've never seen anything like it. Thousands of performers in seemingly computer-synchronized choreography of algorithmic complexity. If this was China's attempt to intimidate visiting athletes -- a sort of rugby Haka writ large -- it more than succeeded. If you missed it, YouTube it.

TV-wise, it's Psych and reality shows such as So, You Think You Can Dance? which, in many ways, is far superior to "American Idol" because the judges are more articulate -- when Mary Murphy isn't screaming like Robert Plant on helium, that is. And seasoned British host Cat Deeley is the best emcee on television. Movie-wise, I was apparently one of the 10 people in North America that saw The X-Files: I Want My Money Back. Fact: More people have seen "Space Chimps" than the second -- and, I reckon, last -- Mulder and Scully film. It's one of the most dismal big-screen experiences ever. Unforgivably dull and not in the least cinematic, the film barely included anything supernatural, and the performances weren't super natural, either. The Dark Knight, however, exceeded all my expectations.

READING: Haven't had as much reading time as I'd have liked and my bookshelf is now fully packed, but I am half way through David Wroblewski's The Story of David Sawtelle, perhaps the most acclaimed debut novel of 2008. It's Dickensian in length and its gold-bar size doesn't exactly qualify it as beach reading. But its "Hamlet" inspired tale of a mute boy and his canine companion is perfect for the dog days of August. But it's utterly compelling and beautifully written.

Next up for me is a galley copy of When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson, one of my very favorite authors.

LISTENING TO: Lots of Radiohead at the moment as Kim and I will be seeing them Wednesday night, which will be a great send off before we jet to Los Angeles the following day.

Last week we saw The Police again and it was a fine farewell gig, albeit a little too short and, unforgivably, no "Synchronicity II" this time around! I had hoped that the trio would record new material because Sting's solo songs are smothered in smooth sounds. (How's that for alliteration, eh?) I'd love for him to pare down his material for a leaner discipline on his next album. And, no, I don't mean making another record of lute music.

We just saw Coldplay for the fifth time and, if Chris Martin's falsetto seemed as fragile as his artistic temperament, he more than made up for it with boundless enthusiasm. The outstanding light show by designer Paul Normandale, increasingly the go-to-guy for cutting-edge stage presentations, centered around massive Christmas-tree light bulbs that were suspended above the crowd and projected images or refracted them like gigantic marbles. The band included some other nice touches: Dashing down the side aisle to the nosebleed section to play a couple of acoustic tracks. As populist touches go, it was most welcome for those of us in the cheap seats.

Earlier in July, I enjoyed club dates by Joseph Arthur, one of my very favorite songwriters, and Shearwater, my favorite discovery of 2008.

Album-wise, I've been loving "Absent Lovers," a 1980s live album by King Crimson. The setlist corrals the band's finest songs, I think, and the lineup of Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew, Bill Bruford, and Tony Levin is perhaps only surpassed by the current touring lineup which sees Pat Mastelotto and Porcupine Tree drum god Gavin Harrison taking over the backstage stools for a double-drum formation.

Also on frequent rotation: The Best of The Beta Band. (It's not pronounced Beta as in VHS, but "bee-tah." Must be a Scottish thing.) Until now, I only owned their final album, the tremendous "Heroes to Zeros," but this compilation reveals how good their earlier material was, too. Their unusual amalgamation of sounds and psychedelia is reminiscent in feel of Love. I have to thank my friend Simon for that one, as well as supplying me with albums by The Cure, Ulrich Schnauss, Field Music, and The Editors. What a heaven-send during all the packing. Speaking of which, I really must return to taping up some more boxes...

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Oh dear, there's a Joker in the pack

Right now you'd have to retreat into a bat cave to escape the buzz about "The Dark Knight," released Friday. Amid giddy talk about a $130 million opening weekend and a posthumous Oscar for Heath Ledger, I'm a little worried about the film itself, despite the great reviews. I predict that the film will be beset by the same problem that has plagued every Bat flick apart from, perhaps, Christopher Nolan's previous entry in the series. I'm not talking about Batman being unable to turn his head in his immovable cowl. No, I'm referring to Batman being a supporting player in his own franchise. In these films, the main focus is always on the avant-garde villains and, inevitably, they outshine the hero. From what I'm hearing, Ledger does exactly that....

Monday, July 07, 2008

A publisher's best friend...

I picked up “The Story of Edgar Sawtelle” at a book store the other day purely based on great reviews and, so far, I'm enthralled by the story even though I have no idea where it's going. (If possible, I try to avoid reading a book-jacket synopsis to retain the element of surprise.)

What I do know is that this tale, set on a farm in Wisconsin, focuses on the relationship between a mute boy and his faithful hound companion. What, with the success of “Marley and Me” and “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” I predict that books about canine best friends are bound to become the next trend in publishing. Hollywood won't lag too far behind. Already, a film adaptation of "Marley and Me," starring Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston, is slated to open Christmas day.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

James Bond has returned

I became a James Bond fan at an early age (the second movie I ever recall seeing is "The Man with the Golden Gun," hardly an auspicious introduction to the world of 007) and had read all the Ian Fleming books by around age 13. I read one or two of the later Bond books by John Gardner, too, but ever since the late 1980s my fandom has centered around the cinematic Bond. So, when novelist Sebastian Faulks ("Charlotte Gray," "Birdsong") reactivated the secret agent's license to kill, I was curious to see how someone with literary pedigree might update the Boy's Own spy series. In any event, the newspaper's book editor tracked me down to write a review since, like everyone else in the office, she knows that I'm a Bond aficionado. So, here's my take on "Devil May Care."

And, while you're here, you can check out the trailer to the new Daniel Craig entry in the series, "Quantum of Solace." Tell me how it is, because, as with Indiana Jones IV, I'm avoiding all previews prior to opening night.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

E-motion picture

Yesterday, I was talking to some friends of mine about their children's reaction to "WALL*E." Both the 10-year-old and the 8-year-old rated it as PIXAR's worst, alongside "Cars." Truth is, though the titular character may have the cutest, most expressive eyes in cartoonery since Puss in Boots from "Shrek," this fable of post-apocalyptic horror isn't really a kids film at all. (Exit polling revealed that a good portion of the film's attendees were adults without children.) The film's halo of humanity is just bright enough to ward off the encroaching shadows of sadness and despair that lurk in the corners of every frame. As such it's PIXAR's greatest achievement, surpassing "Toy Story I & II," "Finding Nemo" and even the company's previous highwater mark, "The Incredibles." It is the best movie of the year and, evidently, I'm not the only person who feels that way.

"Wall*E," a movie that has virtually no speaking made me cry twice -- which seldom happens to me -- but it will inevitably be relegated to the animation category at The Oscars. "Cartoons" have, for decades, been deemed unworthy of Best Picture status. Even though live-action pictures are made in just a fraction of the time it takes to painstakingly create a work of animation. (Peter Gabriel and score composer Thomas Newman oughta score an Academy Award for "Down to Earth," the great song during the end credits.)

As Brad Bird, director of "The Incredibles" and "The Iron Giant" once noted: “People think of animation only doing things where people are dancing around and doing a lot of histrionics, but animation is not a genre. And people keep saying, “The animation genre.” It’s not a genre! A Western is a genre! Animation is an art form, and it can do any genre. You know, it can do a detective film, a cowboy film, a horror film, an R-rated film or a kids’ fairy tale. But it doesn’t do one thing. And, next time I hear, “What’s it like working in the animation genre?” I’m going to punch that person!”

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Taking stock of 25 years of entertainment

The most recent issue of EW is devoted "The new classics: The 1000 Best Movies, TV Shows, Albums, and Books of the past 25 years." (Whenever magazines do lists, it's because its a lean weak/month for newsstand worthy cover stars.)

Moviewise, not too many quibbles about EW's top 100 films, but there are precious few foreign films (unless you count "Lord of the Rings" as a New Zealand production). So, no "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days" or "Amelie" or "Jean de Florette," though at least "Wings of Desire" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" weren't forgotten. I'll forgive the omission of "Brazil" -- and the low ranking of "L.A. Confidential" -- because EW were good enough not to overlook "Children of Men."

Very sound books selections, though I still think "The Road" is overrated. True, Cormac McCarthy's spare, punctuation-free prose creates an unforgettable image of a post-apocalyptic future and the bond between father and son is tenderly evoke. But the story is too repetitive and its stubborn refusal to end with a proper climax is unsatisfactory on a basic story level.

As for the populist-leaning top 100 albums, how about Talk Talk's "Spirit of Eden" ... Porcupine Tree's "Fear of a Blank Planet" ... Kate Bush's "Aerial" ... Gary Moore's "Still Got the Blues" ... Robert Plant's "Fate of Nations" ... David & David's "Boomtown" ... I'd better stop there or I'll be here all night.

The TV selections are near perfect, even if "The Wire" should have been ranked no. 1 rather than no. 11. There's no love for "Veronica Mars" or "Firefly" but somehow "Saved by the Bell" squeaked in at #100! Yep, the show that saddled the world with Tiffani Thiessen, Mario Lopez, and Elizabeth Berkeley. I've seen episodes of "Sabrina the Teenage Witch" that were better written...

To kick off the movie list for the next 25 years, can we start with Wall*E?

Raising temperatures

Setlist: Rich Woman/Leave My Woman Alone/Black Dog/Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us/It’s Goodbye and So Long to You/Through the Morning, Through the Night/ Fortune Teller/In the Mood/ The Rat Age/Bon Temps Roleur/Green Pastures/Down to the River to Pray/ Killing the Blues/ Nothin’/ Who Do You Love/ Battle of Evermore/ Please Read the Letter/ Gone, Gone, Gone/You Don’t Knock/One Woman Man/When the Levee Breaks/Long Journey Home

On Thursday night, the Boston Celtics basketball team took on the L.A. Lakers in its first NBA championship series in 20 years. But no one who attended the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss concert just a mile away would have traded the experience for the offer of courtside tickets. It was a unique experience. And not just because some folks were spotted playing air fiddle.

The duo sauntered on to the stage for “Rich Woman” to rapturous reception at the Boston Pavilion, a prime waterfront venue under a big open-air tent. A freezing night was just starting to heat up. Plant last played here with Strange Sensation in 2005. The third song of the night, “Black Dog,” was one Plant had performed on that night, too. This version – slowed down, yet punctuated by a ripping fiddle solo and drums that could have drowned out a July 4 night sky – was much better.

Plant left the stage to give Alison, dressed in thigh high boots and floral top, center stage for “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us.” One marvels that this mere slip of a girl has such a huge voice. Elegant fiddle improvisations, too. It was unusual to see Robert at the rear of the stage as a backing singer but it nicely underscored the lack of ego in this project and the revue setup of the tour.

The show had been good up until this point. But it was time for Plant to return to the fore and turn up the heat. Picking up the mic stand and shimmying to the groove, he performed an urgent “Fortune Teller,” aided and abetted by Alison’s ethereal wail over the guitar outro. “In the Mood,” which I last saw performed in 1993, was a treat. Part way through it segued into a song I didn’t recognize before returning to the “Principle of Moments” highlight. Here, Plant tested the other end of his range, plunging to deep bass notes like Johnny Cash with a cold. Then, suddenly, Plant exclaimed, “I’M IN THE MOOD” and the crowd roared, encouraging the band to whip up a frenzy.

Plant, it turned out, was just warming up for what would follow. The duo’s version of “Black Country Woman” (another song I’d last heard performed in 1993) is astonishingly good, especially the dynamic when Krauss and the drums kick in. Voice fully lubricated, Plant started to cut loose, flipping he mic stand as he let out some of those signature “ooohs” and vocal ad libs.

Next, it was T Bone Burnett’s turn in the spotlight for “The Rat Age” and “Bon Temps Roleur.” He receives a massive cheer after Plant introduced him and further endeared himself when he declared, “I’m from L.A., but I hate the Lakers!”

As band leader, Burnett stalked the front of the stage all night, dressed in long black coat and holding his guitar at right angles to his body, he resembled a preacher with a machine gun. I must admit that I’ve never enjoyed T Bone’s solo records because, truthfully, he doesn’t have a great voice. What a great producer and player, though. The best part of Burnett’s solo spot was Jay Bellerose’s thunderous drum cadenza and Stuart Duncan’s scorching fiddle – one could see why he’s long been Alison Krauss’s favorite musician. Kudos to guitarist Buddy Miller – cover star of this month’s No Depression, a magazine about alt. country/Americana music – who is a stellar axeman.

It would be tough for any performer to take to the stage after Krauss’s lovely renditions of “Green Pastures” and “Down to the River to Pray,” songs that showcased her perfect pitch and modulation. But, following a vibrant “Killing the Blues,” Plant was once again front and center, kicking the mic stand and moving around the stage as if he was fronting Zep at the 02 Dome all over again. He remains the coolest frontman on the planet. During "Nothin,'" which is far more up tempo than the album version, he let out the longest "ooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooh" I've ever heard him do and then he did it again a second later, sustaining it as long but somehow going up a note when mere mortals would have been gasping for breath. Very reminiscent of “Kashmir” back in December. In the 18 times I’ve seen Robert in concert, this was song one of the most thrilling performances I’ve ever seen by him. The guitarists really rocked this one.

Next up, a surprise departure from the earlier setlists: A rocking version of Bo Diddley’s “Who Do You Love,” with Plant sharing his microphone with T Bone, in tribute to the recently departed father of rock ‘n’ roll. Robert played a hot harmonica solo, too. “He was like my uncle,” Plant said afterward.

“The Battle of Evermore” capitalized on this exciting run of songs, Plant tossing his hair during the powerful “bring it back” section. An inspired choice of song for the duo.

The band kept the pot boiling with “Please Read the Letter” and “Gone, Gone, Gone” (during which the band unveiled its sole stage effect all night, dropping the back curtain to reveal a gold lame backdrop) before heading offstage for the encore.

I didn’t recognize the next song, but it was one of my favorites of the night. “You Don’t Knock,” Kingston Trio song according to Google, saw Plant leading the other male singers in the band like a barbershop quartet. If Robert were to record a followup to The Honeydrippers, it would likely sound like this. After “One Woman Man,” the mood shifted dramatically. "When the Levee Breaks" was so dark and ominous that it sounded like a murder ballad that even Nick Cave would have been scared to sing.

By the time Robert and Alison, who had been exchanging fond smiles all evening, hugged and then performed “Your Long Journey Home,” my Adams apple had bobbed a few times. A special concert. And, as if it wasn't already a great night, the Celtics won the game.

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"...