Monday, March 30, 2009

A week in the life...

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

READING: Jayne Anne Phillips's "Lark and Termite," which was personally recommended to me by Yvonne Zipp, who is one of the best professional book reviewers in the business thanks to her keen insight and black-belt writing chops. (You can read Yvonne’s critique of the book here.) I’ve yet to make enough headway into the story to piece together exactly what “Lark and Termite” is about (if possible, I tend to avoid reading the synopsis on book jacket). The chapters alternate between an American soldier’s horrific experiences in Korea in 1950, and the story of “Lark,” an adopted teenager, and her mute and crippled step-brother, “Termite,” in 1957. Can’t wait to discover how these disparate narratives will dovetail later in the book. Very compelling so far.

The next book I'm going to track down is “Late Nights on Air" by Elizabeth Hay. Neil Peart, the drummer of Rush (and a fine author himself), sold me on it with this review of it on his website. While you're there, do read Neil's latest fine essay.

WATCHING: My wife and I enjoyed "Duplicity," writer-director Tony Gilroy’s followup to “Michael Clayton,” for both its twisty plot about corporate espionage and the zingy dialogue between Clive Owen and Julia Roberts. Can’t help but think that George Clooney would have better suited to the role, though, given his chemistry with Roberts in “Ocean’s 11.” But since “Duplicity” hews close to the tone of “Ocean’s 11,” Clooney may have felt he would be repeating himself were he to re-team with Gilroy on this project. Let’s give a shout out to cinematographer Robert Elswit, who filmed "Michael Clayton" and won the Oscar for "There Will Be Blood," for his handsome lensing on the film. Elswit is the sort of cinematographer capable of making even Murmansk airport look scenic.

Though I’m not usually a fan of TV procedurals, my wife and I have put ABC’s “Castle” on Season Pass on our DVR. Nathan Fillion (r.), formerly captain of the “Firefly" and hitherto known as the poor-man's Jason Bateman, has finally found another TV series worthy of his dour charisma. The premise: Fillion plays Richard Castle, a bestselling crime novelist who finagles his way into a police department to research his next novel. The electricity between the wise-cracking Fillion and Stana Katic, who plays the no-nonsense cop he’s shadowing, threatens to short circuit the wiring in my television.

My absolute favorite series at the moment is "Friday Night Lights." It's unlike anything else on television, which likely accounts for its paltry viewership. For starters, its small-town setting in the fictional berg of Dillon, Texas, is a refreshing alternative to all the other TV shows set in a major US city. Moreover, the show is more interested in exploring the aspirations of working-class Americans than serving up the soap operatics of "Gossip Girl." The central couple in the show, a football coach and his wife, are -- refreshingly for a TV drama -- happily married even if they have to work though various situations. It's a feel-good show, ultimately, and I feel great surges of jubilation in just about every episode. The third season, currently airing, is the best one yet. Despite fears that the series would be axed, NBC has just renewed it through 2011! Hoorah!

LISTENING TO: I only received my copy of “Kingdom of Rust,” the first album by Doves in four years, from the record company a few days ago. Even though I’ve listened to the album about three times, I haven’t been able to have a leisurely listen and really appreciate it, yet. After all, Doves wrap their unforgettable tunes in so many layers of sound textures that you'll spend many nights in a darkened room with headphones trying to unravel them all. That said, wow! There’s not much particularly new or groundbreaking in the trio's sound, but it’s a great consolidation of their sonic strengths and the melodies are terrific. Listen out for tracks such as “10:03,“ “The Great Denier,” and, especially, “Compulsion.” Likely their best yet.

In the past five years, many bands and artists from Mali have broken out of the "world music" ghetto into mainstream success (among them, Tinariwen, Ali and Vieux Farka Toure, Toumani Diabate, Rokia Traore), but none more so than Amadou & Mariam, the blind couple from Bamako. Fresh from playing last year's Lollapalooza, they'll be touring the US as Coldplay's support act. The duo's new album, "Welcome To Mali," was produced by Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz, The Good, the Bad, and The Queen), and the record delves into reggae, hip-hop, and Western electronica. The crossover sounds have been controversial among African music purists, but its paid off for the duo -- the album has been embraced by everyone from Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane to the reviewers at Pitchfork. "Welcome to Mali" has enough joie d'vivre to put a smile on the face of a GM stockholder.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Farewell, 'Battlestar Galactica'

"Battlestar Galactica" is one of my very favorite TV shows of all time. But when the final episode airs tonight, I won't be sad to see it go. Truth is that this ship shoulda been decommissioned a year or two ago. (Judging by the previews, it seems that the aircraft-carrier-like ship -- now beaten, bruised, and scarred with more pockmarks than Admiral Adama's weathered face -- won't be going gently into that good fight.) More on the show's flaws later. For now, let's celebrate the show's many virtues and why it should be rightfully regarded as one of television's greatest artistic achievements.

For starters, "Battlestar Galactica" dragged science fiction into the 21st century as an artform. Series creator Ronald D. Moore, formerly a writer on "Star Trek," introduced something akin to a punk mindset to TV sci-fi. While devising the series Bible, he laid out the following detailed manifesto for his vision:

Taking the Opera out of Space Opera

Our goal is nothing less than the reinvention of the science fiction television series.

We take as a given the idea that the traditional space opera, with its stock characters, techno-double-talk, bumpy headed aliens, thespian histrionics, and empty heroics has run its course and a new approach is required. That approach is to introduce realism into what has heretofore been an aggressively unrealistic genre.

Call it "Naturalistic Science Fiction."

The idea, the presentation of a fantastical situation in naturalistic terms, will permeate every aspect of our series.

In "Battlestar Galactica," the remnants of human civilization undertakes an intergalactic exodus after its planets are wiped out by the sentient robots mankind created. The genius of Ronald D. Moore's show was taking the premise of the original Glen A. Larson series -- an ambitious late '70s attempt to update television sci-fi for the "Star Wars" audience -- and honing in on its sudden relevance to current events. (See EW's excellent oral history of the show's development here.) Sept. 11 dictated the course and tone of the re-imagined show as it fearlessly delved into topical issues such as religious fundamentalism, suicide bombings, torture, foreign occupation, the nature of political power, the promises of security in exchange for rolling back civil liberties. More than any other television show, "Battlestar Galactica" chronicled the Bush era by acting as an allegorical looking glass.

Those issues are still unresolved and prevalent, of course. Obama, for example, may be rolling back troop presence in Iraq, but he's stepping up the offensive in Afghanistan. And his actions on the civil liberties front are shaky: He's claimed he has the (unconstitutional) right to detain Americans without charges, to name just two ongoing issues. But no matter, "Battlestar Galactica" explored those issues as much as it could even as the series began to creak under the own weight of its unresolved mythology. The show began to suffer from the same problems that "Lost" had in its third season: With no end date in sight, the show knew its final destination but, much like its fleet of rag-tag survivors, it wasn't sure how to get there.

That uncertainty meant there was a fair bit of padding at times but, more crucially, the writers became uncertain of what to do with its characters. (It wasn't even sure who the characters were -- the secret identities of the "final five" cylons were only dreamed up in the writers' room during Season 4.) Long-term character arcs were sacrificed in favor of creating drama for the sake of each episode. For example, Adama's fluctuating feelings about whether to cyclons swung like dramatic pendulums from one extreme to the other instead of unfolding as a naturalistic evolution. ("The Wire," which is the greatest show in the history of the television medium, offers a masterclass in constructing believable long-term character arcs.) The ever-candid Katee Sackhoff has expressed frustration about how, come season 5, she had no idea how to play Starbuck because she had no idea who (or what) her character was, or why she acts the way the script dictates.

Fortunately, the show had such great actors in its peerless ensemble that their performances went a long way to paper over the cracks. I'll single out two actors in particular. Edward James Olmos was given the role of a lifetime here. His stern gravitas makes him such a believable leader (by all accounts, he assumed this role on the set, too), but Olmos also imbued the character with tremendous gentleness. Mary McDonnell is the very epitome of grace, but her Roselyn believably discovered unexpected reserves of steeliness as she inherited the mantle of president of the fleet. That both actors were overlooked by the Emmys and Golden Globes just underscores the degree to which award shows are little more than popularity contests. Only the show's astonishing visual effects were recognized by Emmy.

This isn't quite the end for "Battlestar Galactica." Just this incarnation. Universal is developing a "Battlestar Galactica" movie that will once again reinvent the story. Seems pointless to me since it would be hard to top what this "BSG" accomplished. I'm far more excited that Olmos is directing a TV movie called "The Plan," which views the attack on Caprica from a Cylon perspective. And Moore will soon unveil the pilot of "Caprica," a prequel set 50 years before the events of "BSG." Worryingly, the previews make it all seem a little too Soap Opera-ish but I have faith that Moore will elevate the material beyond "Gossip Girl" in space.

But those projects are still far off. Tonight I'll salute the conclusion of one frakkin' great science fiction series.

Un-Cage my heart

Nicolas Cage isn't just an actor, he's his own genre.

Cage signs on to the bargain-basement movies no other A-list actor would deign to appear in: "Bangkok Dangerous," "The Wicker Man," "Gone In 60 Seconds," "Next," "Ghost Rider," and now, "Knowing." As such, you know exactly what you're getting when you go to a Nic Cage movie. It's going to be cheap 'n' nasty, full of thrills, and the lead character is going to act totally loco.

Cage's horsey face and receding hairline don't make him a natural leading man. But he makes up for it in intensity. When he isn't the hoarse whisperer, he's going utterly berzerk. Subtle? No. Entertaining? Yes. And, as such, he seems to be able to notch up a hit in 1 out of every three movies, most notably the "National Treasure" franchise. (Every once in a while, the Oscar winner will also remind us that he's a terrific actor by taking on roles in projects such as "Adaptation," "Matchstick Man," and "Bringing Out the Dead.")

I caught a screening of "Knowing" last night followed by a Q&A by leading lady Rose Byrne and producer David Alper. I think she sensed the palpable lack of enthusiasm in the audience. Frankly, the movie's only hope of box-office redemption is if the Christians who worship the "Left Behind" series turn out in droves for this Rapture-like vision of Earth's apocalypse. Everyone else is going to stay far away.

If you haven't seen the trailer, I'll fill you in on the story. John Koestler (Cage), a MIT professor, comes across a piece of paper from an unearthed time capsule that was buried 50 years ago. It's filled with seemingly random strings of numbers. But then Koestler starts to notice a pattern -- the numbers on the piece of paper all refer to tumultuous events in human history such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters.

Yeah, I know. The premise sounds like "The Number 23," that disastrous Jim Carrey vehicle in which a man goes bonkers when he discovers that the number 23 is at the core of everything -- from JFK's assassination to 9/11. The difference in "Knowing" is that the numbers are somehow related to mysterious beings (all of whom resemble Rutger Hauer circa "Blade Runner") who have been watching over Earth -- and Cage's young son.

Cage invests his role with typical bug-eyed fervor as he tries to get nonbelievers to understand that he has stumbled on a code that predicts several disasters, including the end of times. (In the Q&A, Byrne testified to Cage's intense devotion during filming.) The movie, which effectively uses its Melbourne location to sub in for Boston, is most effective when its staging visceral disaster sequences. The movie's best scene, shot in a single take, follows Cage as he watches in horrific disbelief as an airliner crashes in front of him. (Producer David Alper reveals they only had a brief window of a one-off take in which to flawlessly capture the lengthy scene.) As critic Ty Burr notes in his review, director Alex Proyas ("Dark City," "I, Robot") is no hack.

Alas, the film is confused about its meaning. It frequently alludes to Biblical connections -- a passage in Ezekial, for instance -- but ultimately shies away from whole-heartedly embracing this direction. Turns out -- SPOILER ALERT -- that the Nordic blonds in long dark coats are actually aliens and, in a "Close Encounters" finale, they call down their cylindrical UFO. But the film's producer revealed that he likes to think of them as benevolent angels, though the film doesn't make that at all clear clear. Benevolent? Malevolent is more like it.

Come the end of the movie, when it's clear that a solar flare is about to wipe out all of planet Earth, it transpires that these beings have come to transport boys and girls from all over the world, two-by-two, to a new planet where mankind can start anew. But they refuse to take Cage's character for some inexplicable reason. Is the movie trying to make some point about the innocence of children and the sins of elders? It's not clear on that point and, at any rate, Cage's dad seems like a thoroughly decent guy even if he is estranged from his father, a pastor, for some unclarified reason.

And so the film ends with these space ships just ditching all these young kids on this seemingly unpopulated planet. With its two moons and waves of amber grain, it sure looks idyllic and haibitable but these young kids now have to fend for themselves without the help of any adults. Doh.

Meanwhile, Cage's character visits his father -- who alludes to the apocalyptic event as the Rapture -- and the hug each other at the very instant that a cosmic wildfire wipes out Boston and New York in a flash. Thus ends the feel-bad movie of the year.

Cage will rebound from this disaster. After all, he's more than a star. He's a genre.

UPDATE: Well, what do I know. Turns out that "Knowing" topped this weekend's box office by a robust $24 million. It'll drop next weekend due to word of mouth. But, for now, Cage remains a powerful genre unto himself.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Bob Dylan revisited

I like to think of myself as someone with open musical horizons, but I never thought I'd come to love Bob Dylan. For years, I'd struggled to understand why he's so revered by the boomer generation, even if I could appreciate his lyrical prowess. But, oh man, that nasal bleating just turned me off.

Fortunately, a friend of mine was convinced I was missing out and so he kindly gifted me with Dylan's four most recent releases: "Time Out of Mind," "Love and Theft," "Modern Times," and "Tell Tale Signs: Bootleg Series 8." To my surprise, I love 'em.

Latter-day Dylan is quite different from the 1960s incarnation. No three-minute pop tunes here. (Although the pleasing boogie of “Dirt Road Blues” from "Time Out of Mind" comes close, and "God Knows" from "Tell Tale Signs" would make for a great single.) More than ever, the emphasis is on the words and I wish that the CDs came with lyric sheets. No matter, it means one has to listen ever more closely. And what emerges is how great a storyteller Dylan is.

Bob’s weak point will always be his voice. His singing really is a taste that one acquires. But, like so many other singers – Joni Mitchell, David Bowie, Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant – Dylan has become a more expressive, more emotional vocalist with age. One can detect the rings of wisdom and experience beneath the bark of Dylan’s oakwood voice. That makes this a really compelling listen. The musical backdrops to these poems have a trance-like hypnotism with that deep Americana sound.

As much as I like "Time Out of Mind," I think its successor is even better. Produced by Dylan under his "Jack Frost" moniker, it's a much more vibrant record since the band seems to have been recorded live in the studio. It boasts great songs such as the opener, "Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum," and "Bye and Bye," "High Water," and "Lonesome Day Blues."Prior to now, I'd only heard Sheryl Crow's version of "Mississippi" -- Dylan gave her the song before he even recorded it -- and I prefer the fiddle-driven melody of her version, this is a good one, too, and the alternate versions on "Tell Tale Signs" are even better.

I haven't listened to "Modern Times" yet, though I am already familiar with its terrific lead-off track, "Thunder on the Mountain." I now want to go and revisit Dylan's classics with these new ears of mine. But, first, there's a new album -- "Together Through Life" -- to look forward to come April. Not one to stand still, Dylan says this album is influenced by the Chess Records of his youth. Can't wait.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

I love you ... Hayden Panetierre?!?

Hayden Panetierre will take time out of her busy schedule appearing in every issue of "People" and "US Weekly" to star in "I Love You Beth Cooper," an adaptation of the debut novel by Larry Doyle. It's one of the funniest books I've ever read, probably because Doyle was once a scribe on "The Simpsons."

Plot synopsis: Uber-geek Denis uses the opportunity of a valedictorian speech to publicly declare his undying love for secret crush Beth Cooper, the most popular and beautiful girl in school. What plays out is something a bit like "Superbad" as Dennis and his loser best friend spend the night of high school graduation loping from one party to the next trying to win Beth's affection -- and trying to elude her rage-roid boyfriend.

Alas, I can't imagine the humor transferring to screen. It's all in Doyle's writing and turn of phrase. The newly released trailer suggests that Chris Columbus's movie opts for slapstick and physical comedy, all of which was in the book, but it's funnier when you tell, rather than show it. I'll give the film the benefit of the doubt for now, since Doyle wrote his own screenplay. And I do like the casting of Panetierre as the titular character and Paul Rust seems perfectly cast as the hapless hero.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Music critics and U2

I've written about the dismal state of music criticism before but I feel compelled to revisit the subject after reading no less than 10 reviews of U2's "No Line on the Horizon." A couple of first-out-of-gate reviews -- including Q magazine and Rolling Stone -- awarded the album 5 stars. This week's Entertainment Weekly stamped an A- on its review. I've listened to the album a few times now and, though it has commendable moments, you'd have to be of a very subjective opinion to declare this album a masterpiece. This kind of grade inflation makes one wonder if Ben Bernanke is secretly moonlighting as a music-review editor.

An astute, and persuasive, essay in the new WORD magazine (Kate Bush) cover, uses Kanye West's "808s & Heartbreak" as a case study in how the media now reviews the myth and not the music. Author Rob Fitzpatrick concludes, "Why can no one say this record is dreadful? In the pointless race to be the first review, no one wants to 'get it wrong.' " In this week's WORD podcast, its three participants -- editor Mark Ellen and senior writers David Hepworth and Andrew Collins -- wonder whether album reviews shouldn't be replaced by assessments three months after the release.

The ever-excellent WORD, incidentally, offers the sort of measured and insightful reviews that are in short supply these days. I'm looking forward to reading their review of U2's "No Line on the Horizon." In the mean time, I recommend reading the two newspaper critics I most trust, The Guardian's Alexis Petridis and The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot. Pop Matters also has a spot-on critique. As for me, perhaps I'll wait three months to offer up my own review of "No Line on the Horizon."