A Boston-based Chief Culture Writer for The Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com). Author of "Art of Rush."
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
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
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
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
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 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
Thursday, September 11, 2008
Pure animal magnetism
Sunday, September 07, 2008
Good news about '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?
"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.)
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.
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:
What song or songs is/are most “atypical” on your player?
What song(s) on your player turns you on?
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?
What is the longest song on your player?
What do you think is the silliest song on your player?
What did you most recently add to your player?
What did you most recently delete?
What is your favorite song on your player that is from a movie?
Is there a song on your player that is only there for someone else’s benefit?
What song or artist do you find yourself skipping most frequently and therefore should probably delete?
Without cheating, start your player and list the first 10 songs that come up in random play.
Tuesday, September 02, 2008
These devils wear Prada
Monday, August 25, 2008
Meet American Idol's new judge
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
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 Coldplay.com 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.
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 keanemusic.com, this first single off "Perfect Symmetry" is a shot across every music critic's bow.
Saturday, August 09, 2008
The dogged days of August
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.
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
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
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?
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....
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...
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).
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
Friday, May 02, 2008
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."