Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: The worst year for movies?

Is 2010 the worst movie year ever? Nope. That dubious distinction belongs to 2011. How do I know this? Because if teaser trailers for Pirates of the Caribbean 4, Thor, Transformers 3, and The Green Hornet function as a crystal ball then, well, I predict you'd be better off spending your $10 on a night out at the bowling lane than the cineplex.

But it was a pretty rotten year for the movies. In July, Joe Queenan wrote a widely discussed cover story for The Wall Street Journal asserting that 2010 was the worst movie year ever. The Los Angeles Times asks, "Did Movies Get Better or Worse in 2010?" And The Boston Globe's great film critic, Ty Burr, echoed the sentiments of many in his profession this week when he wrote:
How is a critic to interpret a year in film that just didn’t send him? Are the movies to blame or is he? For the first time in recent memory, I had to wrack my brain to come up with an annual Top 10 list. There were films I liked and even loved, but precious few that stood above the fray and seemed built to last longer than the long tail of their release patterns.

I think we — movies and the society they reflect — are in a period of profound transition. The blockbuster film is hardly a thing of the past, but it’s metastasizing into something that, within a decade, may not resemble a movie at all. Which is to say that the defining film of 2010 may turn out to have been the one released at the end of 2009: James Cameron’s “Avatar,’’ a looking-glass world of 3-D IMAX ravishment and narrative banality.

It felt as though popular culture took a long, deep breath after that film came out, and then, in late October, Cameron announced two sequels, the first due in 2014. Where Cameron goes, Hollywood will follow, and our children’s children will not watch movies but wade into a hi-def sensurround experience that should probably be called something else. Feelies, perhaps. At that point, the cinema as we have known it for over a century will have disappeared into the past. Like vaudeville music or network TV, it will become the province of historians, nostalgists, and other people wary or weary of the Brand New Thing.
Indeed, 2010 has turned out to be a pivotal 12 months for the movie industry. It was the year that decisively cemented a new division of labor in Hollywood that has been emerging in recent years. Movie studios now devote the bulk of their resources to creating big, special-effects driven blockbusters while television studios produce the kind of art-house dramas that Hollywood has all but given up on producing.

The studios have started to focus on what they're good at: splashy, effects-driven fare designed for the lowest-common denominator audiences (now in 3-D, of course, to lure people away from their wall-sized flat screen televisions). More than ever, it's the "high concept" premise and the name-brand of a "property" such as Harry Potter or an Iron Man or a Tron that is the big draw for moviegoers. In a recent issue of Entertainment Weekly , Reese Witherspoon commented on how dramatically movies have changed since the writer's strike. "The movies that are being made feel different now.... There are a lot of really, really, really big movies about robots and things--and there's not a part for a 34-year-old woman in a robot movie."

In recent years, the big studios have shuttered their art-house, or "specialty", divisions. The independently funded movie sector, which produced a glut of indie movies just a couple of years back as investors sought to get into the movie biz, has dwindled now that there's a credit crunch in the economy. (Documentaries, the one bright spot at the cinema this year, are relatively inexpensive to make and continue to flourish.)

TV has stepped into the breach vacated by movie studios. Or, more accurately, Hollywood has retreated from middlebrow and highbrow Oscar fare (as The New York Times noted this week) now that one can watch drama of the highest caliber on television instead. Used to be that HBO had a monopoly on its tagline: "It's not TV, it's HBO." Nowadays, everyone else has caught up including, to an extent, the big three networks but especially channels such as TNT, AMC, FX, and Showtime. The very best Hollywood dramas I saw this yearWinter's Bone, The Kids Are All Right, The Social Network, The King's Speech—pale next to Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Treme, The Good Wife, Mad Men, Damages, Friday Night Lights. Similarly, I laugh more during a half hour of Modern Family or Raising Hope than I did during the entire two hours of Date Night or The Other Guys.

Tellingly, The New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote an essay a few months ago titled, "Are Films Bad, or is TV just better?" And The Denver Post's great libertarian political columnist David Harsanyi recently wrote a column titled "All the Drama's on TV" in which he observed,
Television — with its zombies, ad men ("Mad Men"), dysfunctional mafia families ("The Sopranos"), science fiction meets geo-politics ("Battlestar Galactica"), and decaying urban centers ("The Wire") — consistently has become the place to explore the American cultural and political experience.

This is the golden age of television.

In the 1970s, visionary directors were given wide artistic berth to create innovative, unsettling, hyper-realistic films for mainstream audiences. Such experiences are rare these days — in film, at least. Not only is television more intellectually stimulating, more topical and politically relevant, audiences today are far more devoted to it. TV is fulfilling the promise of the movies. These days, it is easier to imagine Travis Bickle starring in an HBO series exploring the grimy underbelly of city life and mental illness than it is to see a director getting away with producing a mainstream film as bleakly disturbing as "Taxi Driver."

That's not to say there aren't occasionally great films or even that mainstream blockbusters can't be entertaining — who doesn't need empty calories and escapism? It's just that most major releases alternate between the artistically gutless, the ineptly preachy, the hopelessly saccharine and, worst of all, the boring.
Harsanyi isn't exaggerating. HBO's The Wire is superior to anything that Martin Scorsese has done over the past decade, including Departed. (Scorsese himself seems to understand how good the television medium can be given that he directed the pilot episode of Boardwalk Empire.) Simply stated, the best writers in Hollywood are working in television right now. The inherent advantage of the small screen is that TV series allow writers to create elegant story arcs and develop characters in a way that you just can't do in a 120 minute movie. The television medium has caught up to the big screen in special effects, picture quality, and cinematic quality. Watch any episode of Breaking Bad, for example, and marvel at how the directors are more innovative and, indeed, cinematic than many of their big-screen counterparts.

You won't see A-list movie stars flocking to television any time soon, of course, even though there's much richer material available for them on the small screen. Actors still regard TV as an inferior echelonthe place where you get your start in your early 20s and the place where you end up when you're in your late 40s and your looks have gone. Plus, big-screen roles usually pay better (though not always: Scarlett Johansson was paid a reported $250,000 for her role in Iron Man 2, a fee she willingly undertook to build her box-office reputation and bolster fan-boy demand). Big screen movies still have more prestige and that counts a lot for an actor's vanity. Moreover, even though the days on film set are long and arduous, a film shoot lasts about 6 weeks whereas the punishing schedule of a television series lasts 10 months of the year.

Now that Hollywood seldom produces fewer actor-driven moviesthe types of dramas that used to be the staple of the Oscarsactors are finding that they have fewer options available to them unless they star in a superhero movie. Indeed, A-list actors are seldom the reason to go to a movie nowadays. Look at some of 2010's box-office disappointments, for example: Cruise & Diaz in Knight and Day, Depp & Jolie in The Tourist, Hathaway & Gyllenhaal in Love and Other Drugs, Downey Jr. & Galifianakos in Due Date, Reese Witherspoon, Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd and Owen Wilson in the year's biggest flop, How Do I Know? There are just a few actors, now, who can draw an audience with their star power: Sandra Bullock, Meryl Streep, Will Smith, Leonardo DiCaprio and, to a lesser extent Denzel Washington. Depp, Jolie, and Downey can do well in the right action picture.

I've been wondering why fewer movies are star-driven nowadays. Why are moviegoers more attracted by brand-name properties and high-concept plot lines than Hollywood stars? My guess is that it's because the nature of stardom has changed. In Hollywood's Golden Age, movie stars had a certain mystique. They had relatively limited exposure and, therefore, an aura of mystery. If you wanted to see a beautiful actress or handsome actor, you had to go to the cinema to see them, purchase a carefully choreographed interview in Life magazine, tune into an appearance on The Tonight Show or watch the Oscars.

Now, all one has to do is to log onto TMZ.

In the information age we now know so much about each and every celebrityand see them so often in the mediums of print, television, and the Internetthat we seldom feel compelled to get a glimpse of these rarefied creatures at the cinema. Indeed, we tend to care more about a star's personal dramas than we do about their fictional on-screen dramas. Case in point: Jake Gyllenhaal's recent "dates" with Taylor Swift have been a media sensation even as Love and Other Drugs became a box-office shrug.

Indeed, the very nature of celebrity itself has changed. Today's biggest stars are arguably the C-listers on Dancing with the Stars, The Jersey Shore or The Housewives of Beverly Hills or Living with the Kardashians. These stars are happy to let their personal dramas play out on Twitter, Perez Hilton, and US Weekly. I'd argue that Kim Kardashian, a multi-millionairess who gets paid $10,000 for each product she endorses on Twitter, is probably a bigger star than most supposedly A-list actresses.

So, in sum, big changes all around in Hollywood that will ripple over the coming decade. Despite my pessimism through this blog post, I'll end by noting that the future isn't all doom and gloom for cinema. In the week-to-week competition at the box office, it's the movies with the best writing and strongest characters that often, if not always, win out in the long run, as this New York Times article observes. Splashy special effects and noisy bluster can only get you so far. (That's Tron: Legacy in a nutshell.) Pixar built its empire on the foundation of great scripts. And Inception was a powerful reminder that a great original blockbuster can pay off huge at the box office. In the years to come, the likes of Darren Aronofsky, Jean-Pierre Jeneut, Peter Jackson, James Cameron, Alfonso Cuarón, David Fincher and Steven Spielberg will produce blockbuster fare that caters to the head and heart. And for everything else there's always television...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

My Robert Plant interview

My in-depth interview with Robert Plant for American Way, the in-flight magazine of American Airlines, is now on newsstands ... er ... I mean airplane seats. Don't worry, you needn't catch a flight to read it -- follow this link to read the full feature.

The interview with Plant was one of the highlights of my journalistic career. I was 12 years old and living in South Africa when I first heard Robert Plant's 1985 single Little By Little. It sounded unlike anything else on the music scene at the time and it's harrowingly emotional vocal instantly resonated with me. I'd never heard of Plant before then, nor even Led Zeppelin, but nevertheless saved up my pocket money to buy his third solo album, Shaken 'n' Stirred. Plant is my all-time favorite artist and over the past 25 years I've followed his every unpredictable move. He's one of the few artists of his generation -- or any other -- who continually seeks out new paths to explore rather than taking the easy road of commercialism.

Of course, you know the old adage: Never meet your heroes, they always disappoint. That hasn't been the case with Robert. This is the second time I've interviewed Robert and though the previous interview was terrific, it was an all-too-brief 20 minute chat. This time around, I had an hour on the phone with the singer and it felt more like a breezy conversation than a formal Q&A session. Robert was on hand to talk about his great new album, Band of Joy (which I reviewed for Under the Radar magazine) and he was gracious, thoughtful, funny, open and fully engaged. He is as sincerely personable and grounded as people say he is. After the interview, Robert called up his manager to tell her how much he'd enjoyed it. To say the least, the feeling was mutual.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Best albums of 2010

Forgive my lack of blog posts in quite a while. I recently started writing a novel, a literary thriller, and it's occupying most of my time when I am not freelancing for various magazines. (I'm very active on Twitter, though, so follow me on @steve_humphries.)

But I thought I'd s
hare my 30 favorite albums of 2010. As always, it's an almost preposterous task to rank such disparate albums in a wide variety of genres into a strict ranking.

Doubtless, there are other fine albums
released this year that have escaped my notice. For example, even though I own all the albums by The Czars, I've yet to buy lead singer John Grant's solo record Queen of Denmark, which featured highly in many top 10 lists this year, including Mojo magazine's # 1 pick for 2010.

Best albums of 2010

1) Shearwater is America's greatest band right now. Their past three albums are masterpieces. Yet, even though music blogs and the music press is aware of Shearwater and dutifully provides coverage, the band sorely lacks high-profile champions in the music press to elevate its profile. (Honorable exceptions: The Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot and the music site Drowned in Sound.) Nowadays, music journalists are inundated with new releases each week and many fall by the wayside because they lack the all-important buzz. As a result, I don't think most music writers listened to their latest record, The Golden Archipelago. Their loss. Those who spent many nights swimming in this record's immersive depth and complex beauty know just how special Shearwater is. Just ask Steven Wilson (Porcupine Tree, No-Man, Blackfield), who I introduced to Shearwater last year and ranked The Golden Archipelago his top album of 2010. Here's my review for Filter magazine.

2) Robert Plant is my all-time favorite artist. His latest solo record, Band of Joy, underscores everything that is so special about the singer. Some artists pay lip service to the idea of never making the same album twice yet merely end up creating variations of a particular sound. By contrast, Plant's solo career is as diverse Stanley Kubrick's filmography. As a result, Band of Joy is not Raising Sand II. Its 12 tracks range from blues (Central Two-Oh-Nine) to folk country (Cindy, I'll Marry You Someday) to an ethereal spiritual (Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down) to indie-rock tinged Americana (Monkey, Silver Rider). The blistering final track, Even This Shall Pass, sounds like a great lost Strange Sensation song, while I'm Falling In Love With You could easily slot onto a Honeydrippers Vol. II record. The delightfully catchy Can't Buy My Love marries the sound of a catchy '60s pop with a surprisingly robust rhythm section. This record has marinated deep into my soul over the past few months. Here's my review for Under the Radar magazine.

3) Jesca Hoop's Kismet was one of my fave records of 2007. Many singers aspire to the art-rock thrones of Kate Bush and Björk but Jesca is the true worthy heir apparent. Her leftfield musical imagination is uniquely hers. Her latest album, Hunting My Dress (I have no idea what the title means, either) is showcases her talent for tuneful avant-garde pop. Jesca is a big fan of Kate Bush and her fave album is The Dreaming, so that'll give you an idea where she's coming from. Hunting My Dress, which features a gorgeous duet with Elbow's Guy Garvey, brims with memorable tunes and deep-seated emotion. When I interviewed Jesca earlier this year, she talked about how the album was influenced by the passing of her mother.

4) Steve Mason: I didn't fully appreciate Scotland's Beta Band at the height of their fame, even when I saw them support Radiohead. Fortunately, my good friend Simon -- who has impeccable taste in music -- introduced me to the band's final album, From Heroes to Zeros, as well as their earlier albums. Steve Mason's first solo release (under his own name, that is) is far removed from the sound of his former outfit. Boys Outside is melodic adult pop that, oddly enough, could cross over to fans of David Gray, Swell Season, and Damien Rice. Occasionally, the album bears traces of Beta Band's sonic edge. What really stands out is how soulful his voice is. He's always had an appealing voice but it seems that some painful life experience has turned him into an emotionally expressive singer. Here's my review for Under the Radar magazine.

My surprise discovery of 2010 is Los Lobos. I had no idea I'd even like 'em. But when I heard their cover of the Grateful Dead's West L.A. Fadeaway, I was immediately intrigued. A five-star review for Tin Can Trust in Uncut magazine (the magazine I most trust for reviews) prompted me to buy the album. It's great. Memorable songs with strong melodies and choruses and amazing blues guitar. It also sounds great. Much of it was evidently cut live--listen closely to the title track and you can hear the hinges of a door opening and closing during the taping--and so it has a rich and atmospheric vibe.

6) Arcade Fire -- The Suburbs
The Besnard Lakes -- Are the Roaring Night
8) Field Music -- Measure
9) Foals -- Total Life Forever
10) Interpol -- Interpol
11) Laura Marling -- I Speak, Because I Can
12) School of Seven Bells -- Disconnect from Desire
13) Warpaint -- The Fool
14) Neil Young -- Le Noise
15) Hans Zimmer -- Inception soundtrack
16) Glasser -- Ring
17) The Black Keys -- Brothers
18) The National -- High Violet
19) Oceansize -- Self Preserved While the Bodies Float Up
20) Blue Water, White Death -- Blue Water, White Death
21) Beach House -- Teen Dream
22) Crowded House -- Intriguer
23) Delphic -- Acolyte
24) The Acorn -- No Ghost
25) Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers -- Mojo
26) Sarah McLachlan -- Laws of Illusion
27) Richard Thompson -- Dream Attic
28) Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan -- Hawk
29) Patty Griffin -- Downtown Church
30) The Orb, featuring David Gilmour -- Metallic Spheres

Great songs from other 2010 albums

Engineers -- In Praise of More
Sade -- Soldier of Love
Sahara Smith -- The Real Thing
She & Him -- In the Sun
The Joy Formidable -- Popinjay
Midlake -- Acts of Man
Goldfrapp -- Rocket
Jonsi -- Go Do
Jenny & Johnny -- Scissor Runner
Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings -- Better Things
Ariel Pink's Haunted Graffiti -- Round and Round
Keane -- Clear Skies
Caribou -- Odessa
Gayngs -- The Gaudy Side of Town
Viernes -- Swimmer's Ear
Joanna Newsom -- In California
Broken Bells -- The High Road
Blonde Redhead -- Everything is Wrong

Friday, November 12, 2010

Now on Newsstands

The new issue of Under the Radar magazine, which features yours truly, also includes Interpol (cover story). Exclusive interviews with: Antony and the Johnsons, Avey Tare, Blonde Redhead, Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr., Deerhunter vs. Stereolab, Glasser, Grinderman, The Big Bang Theory’s Simon Helberg, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jenny and Johnny, Lord Huron, Motorifik, Nightlands, The Red River, Mark Ronson, Sun Airway, Sweet Tooth’s Jeff Lemire, The Corin Tucker Band, Twin Shadow, The Walking Dead’s Robert Kirkman, and The Walkmen.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Now on Newsstands: Under the Radar

The "Wasted on Youth" issue of Under the Radar doesn't have a conventional magazine cover. But then, Under the Radar isn't a conventional magazine. True to its title, the magazine is serious about its mission to provide exposure to the best new bands on the planet. Whereas other music publications rely exclusively on publicists and record labels to feed them tips on who to cover, editor Mark Redfern scours MySpace to find unsigned acts to cover in the magazine's "Pleased to Meet You" section.

Not that the magazine is just devoted to obscure newbies. Under the Radar takes its tagline -- the Solution to Music Pollution -- to heart. In this issue (which includes several of my reviews and my interview with Portishead's Geoff Barrow), various musicians and actors look back on their formative years and the movies, TV shows, and bands that influenced them as children and teenagers.

The cover story features Matt Berninger, the lead-vocalist for The National, along with his one-and-half-year-old daughter, Isla. It also includes interviews with each member of The National about their childhood influences, including films as Tron and The Dark Crystal, such TV shows as The Muppet Show, and such bands as Talking Heads and Joy Division.

The Wasted on the Youth section also includes the following articles:

30 Rock's Judah Friedlander on Pac-Man

The Antlers' Peter J. Silberman on TGIF TV

Being Human's Russell Tovey on Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Bloc Party's Kele on Gary Numan

Camera Obscura's Tracyanne Campbell on Grease

Fucked Up vs. Devo: A Conversation Between Damian Abraham and Mark Mothersbaugh

Here We Go Magic's Luke Temple on His Grandfather

The Kids in the Hall (a look back at the '90s sketch comedy troupe)

Let Me In's Chloë Grace Moretz

Liars' Angus Andrew on Duran Duran

Local Natives' Ryan Hahn on Street Fighter

Look Around You: Robert Popper and Peter Serafinowicz Rethink the Educational Film

Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss on My So-Called Life

My Morning Jacket's Jim James on Twin Peaks (includes a Twin Peaks-themed photo-shoot with James)

Portishead and BEAK>'s Geoff Barrow on Post-Apocalyptic Films of the '80s

Sigur Rós' Jónsi on Being a Metalhead

Tegan and Sara's Sara Quin on Phil Collins

Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen on the Punk Music of His Youth

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World's Mary Elizabeth Winstead on Labyrinth

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Now on newsstands

For its 40th issue, FILTER magazine has gone to a whole new plane -- a horizontal one! Eschewing its traditional vertical design, the landscape layout means that seven members of Broken Social Scene's can all fit on the cover.

In addition to an interview with the Canadian musical collective, the issue scored an exclusive feature with the illusive Will Oldham (aka Bonnie "Prince" Billy), who takes it upon himself to interview Merle Haggard. There's also a love-in between author Jonathan Ames and Matt Berninger of The National. Elsewhere, The Jam revisits its career and actor Michael Cera talks "Scott Pilgrim vs. The World." I also interviewed Delphic, a hotly tipped UK trio, for the issue. You can read my piece here.

So, check out the issue, now on newsstands, and visit

Monday, May 24, 2010

Thoughts on the "LOST" finale

It ended, as I predicted, with the closure of Jack's eyeball.

The finale was at once the best possible finale and also the worst possible finale. Or, put another way: it was dramatically satisfying, and it was mythologically unsatisfying. It was better than the ending of "The Sopranos," but not as great as the ending of "The Wire."

There was a moment near the beginning of the episode -- Hurley's quip about Yoda, I think it was -- when I sat back and relaxed. I knew this was going to be a good episode. Another great line was when Kate said, "Christian Shepherd? Are you kidding me?" (The best laughs of the night, however, were during the commercial breaks with Target's "Lost" ads.) In all, it's been a pretty weak season, so this finale was a great reminder of how great the show could be. Sure, I kinda wished that the Dharma shark had gone all "Jaws" on the Smoke Monster/Fake Locke at the end, but, hey, he got his comeuppance.

The episode was like a greatest hits album. The interactions between the characters were consistently compelling and moving and, well, my Kleenex box is little emptier than it was at the beginning of the night. (Where were Michael and Walt?) How great was Sawyer and Juliet's reunion? (For those hoping to see Sawyer and Kate end up together -- well, they kinda did. One has to assume that they were a couple after they'd finally escaped the island on the plane.)

Wasn't it great to see the Locke we all fell in love with in season 1 back to his usual self? And the final scene between Locke and Ben was incredibly moving. Ben's contrition. Locke's forgiveness. (In the end, Ben was left out in the darkness -- in purgatory -- for his sins.) Best of all was the moment between a resurrected Locke and Jack.

In short, I loved the episode....

....but I hated the cop out to the key question: Where, and what, is the island? For a while now, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse have on message with a constant mantra: The show is really about the characters and not the mystery. True, the show is about the characters and we all would have stopped watching a long time ago if we didn't care about these people. But, c'mon Lindelof and Cuse, we didn't spend years of our lives swapping emails and obsessing over theories about whether Kate would end up with Jack or Sawyer. The mystery and intrigue and complex mythology was still the prime driver. As Charlie put it at the end of the first episode, "Guys, were are we?"

We never did find out.

I've re-watched the final speech by Christian to his son, Jack, several times. Here's what we learned. The Sideways world was really just an illusory reality where the characters got to live out idealized, and redeemed, versions of themselves. It was a purgatory of sorts where they could all reunite and move on toward the white light through, significantly, the portal of a church. Christian told Jack that they had all died -- some before him (Juliet, Saayid, Jin, Sun, etc...) and some after him (Kate, Sawyer, Lapidus, Hurley, Ben, etc). But they had all reunited in Sideways world where time was as immaterial as their own selves. Christian also told Jack that all that he had experienced had been real. So, everything that happened on the island was real.

When Desmond went through his electromagnetic shock therapy, he was able to somehow become omniscient and see what transpired in the Sideways world. He told Jack about the Sideways world when they were standing outside the cave and Desmond believed, mistakenly as it turns out, that he would be magically transported to Sideways world as soon as he pulled out that cork.

(Side note: I can't figure out why Sideways world Eloise Hawking didn't want the characters to know about their pasts. And why did she want Desmond to keep Daniel Farraday from the final reunion?)

Which makes the lack of answers doubly frustrating. It's not just the central question as to what the island is, but also the many plots of the show. Take, for instance, the other Others at the start of this season. Who were they? How did they hear about the island in the first place? How did they discover it? The same question applies to Charles Widmore and co. Was the island a mythological place -- like Atlantis, or Shangrila, or Xanadu, or El Dorado, or maybe Eden -- that men have long sought to discover? The show should have better explained what this island represented to all these different factions and cultures. What was the underlying reason they came to the island in the first place? It wasn't to discover lost gold or treasure. So, was it perhaps the promise of immortality or the control of good and evil? The show hinted at the latter, but we never satisfactorily understood why so many men put their lives on the line to find this island. Why it was the white whale to Widmore's Ahab.

Unresolved question: If Smokey HAD gotten off the island, would it really have meant the end of the world? Or was that just scaremongering by Widmore and Jacob? Without truly understanding what the island is -- and whether it did indeed hold the balance between good and evil in the world -- I have less appreciation for Jack's (and everyone else's) sacrifice by the end of the series. We never got to understand whether the end of the world was truly at stake. Without an explanation about what the island is, the notion that the world was in peril just seems very abstract.

There are smaller questions that nag me. For instance, what was the significance of the Hot Tub Time Machine in the temple where Saayid was cleansed? How did it relate the other hot tub of water at the heart of the island? Was it like the evil version of that golden water? What was the point of that whole temple storyline?

The creators may have felt that it was better to just leave the big answers to our own imaginations. In a way, that may have been the smart thing to do. If they had explained what the island is, the actual answer may have disappointed millions. No matter what the answer might have been, it would never have matched the magnitude of answer that viewers had been bracing for because they had built it up in their heads.

The show has also teetered on the pendulum of science versus faith. If the producers had given us a scientific answer to the island, it would have been disappointing to those who had hoped for a more magical explanation. And vice versa.

At the very end of the recent episode devoted to the backstory of Jacon and his brother, the story shifts to Kate and Jack in the cave. She asks Jack where the skeletons came from and he answers, "You killed a boar. Where did that come from?" I think the writers were using telling us that some mysteries will never be answered and should just be accepted as open to interpretation. (So, never mind where the Alison Janney character came from, or who/what entrusted her to protect that pot of liquid gold, like a leprechaun at the end of a rainbow.)

But the truth is, that it's been increasingly clear in recent interviews that the show creators made up the show as they went along. I think the only thing they knew about the final episode was that it would end with Jack closing his eye. I don't think the show's creators know what the island is. But they kept promising answers, time and time again. They shouldn't have enticed us with that illusive and tantalizing final revelation. It's a bit like Dorothy discovering that the Wizard of Oz was just a fraudulent man behind a curtain.

It was one helluva ride, though. And the characters were great companions along the way. And in that regard, "Lost" was a great success.

P.S. Here's a list of some of the unanswered questions:

  • Egyptian symbols?
  • Taweret: the Egyptian statue
  • Walt being special?
  • The numbers.
  • Who was in the raft that fired on Sawyer's raft while crossing between the two islands?
  • In season 1, why did we watch an episode in which various people insinuate that Claire is pregnant with, well, Satan's spawn? Where did that whole storyline go?
  • The Dharma notebooks

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Now on newsstands...

Now on newsstands: the new issue of Under the Radar magazine, which includes a few pieces by yours truly. (The Joanna Newsom cover on the former could revive a dead man's heart. You may have to plead to your girlfriend/wife that you only read Under the Radar for the articles...)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


Glastonbury may be the world's most famous music festival and certainly the most prestigious, but Coachella is surely the finest festival in the world.

For starters, The Coachella festival site (a polo club) is an unbelievably beautiful setting. It's an oasis in the middle of the Southern Californian desert: palm trees, lush green fields of lawn, rows and rows of flowers, and a backdrop of huge snow-capped mountains. I'll take this over Glastonbury mud any day! At night, colorful lights are projected on the palm trees and the grounds themselves -- filled with exotic works of art -- take on neon hues.

There are two main outdoor stages and then several concert tents (which hold thousands of people) as well as numerous other attractions (a "learn to DJ" tent, for example) and also a welcome "hose down" area. Also some, er, interesting attendees, too, dressed in odd and colorful costumes. At times, I wondered whether I had mistakenly wandered into the Burning Man festival. I saw a guy in a body-hugging red devil suit and I wondered how he could possibly endure spandex in the desert heat. Others were naked with "clothing" spray painted on, like pages from the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition come to life.

I had a backstage pass and although that didn't mean that I could use Beyonce's gold-plated toilet in Jay-Z's pimped-out compound, I was able to use proper air conditioned toilets rather than portapotties. (I have no idea, actually, if Beyonce had a gold-plated loo -- I've just been watching too much MTV "Cribs.") I had many surreal experiences in the restricted artists area ranging from a long talk with Serj Tankian of System of a Down about how Obama reneged on his campaign promise to recognize the Armenian genocide, to opening the restroom door and almost knocking over Danny DeVito -- who is shorter than a midget. I also saw Melanie Griffiths' collagen-inflated lips in close-up. (Imagine a bee-sting version of the Rolling Stones logo.)

After watching Yeasayer (fun, but the songs evaporate from memory seconds later), a regal Gil Scott-Heron, and escaping the Dillinger Escape Plan, I headed to the main stage as the sun (and thermometer) plummeted.

Early on, it was apparent that the festival was going to be affected by the volcano ash as just about all the British and European acts, including Bad Lieutenant, The Cribs, and Delphic (who I had recently interviewed) were stranded at airports.

Fortunately, John Paul Jones -- the linchpin of Them Crooked Vultures -- wasn't among the stranded musicians. He emerged on to the main stage with the most bizarre-looking instrument I've seen in my life. It had 12 strings and a screen in it and then proceeded to play it with a bottleneck slide. Loved how TCV improvised on the original song arrangements and reveled in thrilling executed handbrake turns and sudden stops and starts. One of my fave songs on the album is "Scumbag Blues," a 21st-century update of Cream, which was elongated to include a trippy psychedelic interlude. One of the wonders of the entire festival was Dave Grohl's drumming. He threw himself into each beat with such attack and physicality that it's a wonder he wasn't taken off stage in a stretcher. I watched TCV with Steven Wilson and John Wesley from Porcupine Tree and we all enjoyed the show immensely. Compensation for an afternoon of less-than-enthralling sets.

Afterward, I was torn between heading to a tent to see Imogen Heap or staying to watch LCD Soundsystem. Since I recently saw Imogen's show and had never seen LCD Soundsystem, I opted to take in their epic dance grooves and wasn't disappointed.

I'm not much of a hip-hop guy yet nevertheless stayed to watch Jay-Z come on stage to the introductory music of the James Bond theme followed by "Live and Let Die." Hova was elevated through a hidden hatch in the stage. Quite an entrance. Soon after, I headed over to one of the tents to see Fever Ray. I never did see Fever Ray. Her stage was shrouded in darkness apart from multiple household lamps and some cool lasers. She and the band were just silhouettes in the murky darkness. She sounded great, though, as she played her debut solo album.

Porcupine Tree's set on the second outdoor stage during lunchtime on Saturday was top-notch with a set nicely tailored to festival goers and the uninitiated. Setlist: The Start of Something Beautiful/Sound of Muzak/ Anesthetize/Lazarus/Blackest Eyes/ Time Flies/Halo.

The show received the following rave review in the Orange County Register:
Porcupine Tree proved to best several more high-profile hard rock bands that I also saw perform on Saturday, including buzz trio Band of Skulls and main stage rockers Coheed and Cambria. Indeed, I thought the relatively-unnoticed English group performed one of the most impressive sets of day two, with several concert-goers coming up to me and asking “Who are these guys?”-styled queries. The nuance of the British folk-meets-progressive rock of Porcupine Tree was a revelation, notably the beautiful and reflective “Lazarus” featuring lead singer Steven Wilson seated at the keyboard and singing one of the key songs from “Deadwing.” Later in the set, he set out with his bandmates on the ambitious “Time Flies.” One of the featured tracks on 2009’s “The Incident,” “Time Flies” featured him playing both acoustic and electric guitar and showcased the natural comparisons that can be drawn between this band and genre pioneers such as Pink Floyd. Although the quartet has been around since the late 1980s, it’s nice to see Porcupine Tree getting some well-deserved accolades. Count me among the group’s newest fans.

By contrast, Jon Pareles at the New York Times clearly didn't watch the band's set at all because in his blog post about progressive rock bands at Coachella, he made an off-handed mention of "the early Genesis-loving Porcupine Tree." No one who has actually seen or heard PT would compare their sound to early Genesis. The mind boggles....

Another reviewer for the Los Angeles Examiner shrewdly noted, "a night slot would have really solidified this band to the thousands of people not familiar with the Brit’s transcendental material. With over 20 years of experience, asking a band to only play a short, single-filled set is near disgraceful."

Indeed, few festivalgoers had arrived on site when the band took to the stage and those that did opted for the shelter of the tent stages which routinely attracted several thousand people. It's difficult to comprehend the calculus that determined Porcupine Tree's slot on the bill. There were so many bands in the tents with better time slots that were obscure/unknown or just riding blog buzz. These are bands that are still on the club circuit. None of them could sell out LA's Nokia Theater or Royal Albert Hall months in advance. Certainly, few if any of them has had a top 25 album or the kind of sales Porcupine Tree has had.

I watched Faith No More with the guys from Porcupine Tree on Saturday night and we were delighted by their leftfield opening number: a cover of the 1970s soul tune, "Reunited." Later, they did Michael Jackson's "Ben." They rocked out, too, during a vital set that included "Epic" and "We Care a Lot." Mike Patton waded into the audience and crowd surfed during the set. At one point, a shirtless Danny DeVito ran across the stage. I think that was quite possibly a more disturbing sight than Melanie Griffiths' plastic surgery.

Saturday's headliners, Muse, DESTROYED the place. I was flabbergasted by great they were. Truly one of the great live bands. From their showmanship to musicianship to sheer playfulness (spontaneous excerpts of Ennio Morricone and Hendrix), they were utterly astonishing. The wide-ranging set included "Uprising," "Supermassive Black Hole," "Time Is Running Out," "Starlight" and "Knights of Cydonia." Widespread consensus that it was one of the best sets anyone had seen a band play. Even Jay-Z and Beyonce were rocking out on the side of the stage.

I got to meet Matt Bellamy on Sunday as he was just hanging out in the artist area. He's now one of the biggest rock stars on the planet (Muse were just announced as headliners of Glastonbury) so it was great to discover that he was completely approachable, grounded, engaging and no ego at all. I said to him, "Let me be the 1 millionth person to tell you how incredible your show was." "You're only the 7th," Bellamy quipped. "She was the sixth," he said, pointing to my friend. I told him he also had the quickest costume change in concert history. He explained that he had ripped his red trousers. "Nobody wants to see my knobby knees," he joked. He also said that when he played the guitar with his teeth it was meant to be deliberately cheesy but nobody gets that it's done in humor. And when I told him that all that was missing from their show was a hot air balloon with acrobats suspended underneath it (a la their Wembley stadium gig), he said they're coming to L.A. in September -- with the acrobats! Clearly, these musicians should be given laminates that say "Excess All Areas." They're ridiculously fun.

I got far more of a kick chatting to Bellamy than watching the likes of Beyonce, Kate Hudson, Paris Hilton, and the dude from Twilight swan around.

Over the weekend, I saw several great sets, including those by Beach House and Dirty Projectors. But the breakout band for me was Mutemath. The band were so energetic that their set could have generated nuclear fission as a byproduct. At one point, the frontman placed a snare drum on top of upstretched hands and then clambered on top of that drum somehow before leaping into the crowd. When it was over you could hear the collective "wow" by the crowd. It was a tough act for the keyboard and drums duo of Matt & Kim to follow. But their enthusiasm sustained the crowd's euphoria.

Unfortunately, I missed Jonsi, though I heard he wasn't all that great, but then I started chatting with the drummer from Passion Pit as we tried to get access to watch Phoenix from the backstage. No dice. Beyonce and Thom Yorke had arrived at the same stage and so it was a total lockdown with no access for anyone. Phoenix had a MASSIVE crowd even though they were on the second stage. Sounded really great, though not much variance from their albums.

After that, Thom Yorke and Atoms for Peace took to the second stage. Since no other acts were playing, he drew perhaps the biggest crowd of the festival. They played Thom's "Eraser" album in its entirety and Flea turned out to be an inspired choice of bassist for songs such as "Black Swan" (that bass riff!) and "Harrowdown Hill." Thom performed three Radiohead songs -- an acoustic "Airbag" (wow!), a solo piano rendition of "Everything is In Its Right Place," and the b-side "Paperbag Writer." One new song, "Judge, Jury, Executioner," is a band composition -- Flea tells Rolling Stone that the band has been busy recording -- and it's likely we'll see an Atoms for Peace album or EP before any new Radiohead album. (The album might also include recently debuted compositions such as "A Walk Down the Staircase," "Give Up the Ghost," "The Daily Mail," and "Mouse, Dog, Bird.")

I stayed for three songs into the headliners, Gorillaz -- a huge multimedia spectacle with a setup that included an orchestra + The Clash's Steve Cook and Paul Siminon -- before heading out at 11 to beat the traffic back to LA. Arrived home at 1:30.

It was the best fun I've had in forever, though my aching feet might disagree with that statement.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Videogame Over

During a commercial break of the NCAA championship basketball on Monday night, I watched a trailer for the new "Battlefield: Bad Company" video game (see above).

I was nauseated.

Just two hours earlier, I had watched the leaked classified video of a US Army helicopter killing a group of Iraqi men in Baghdad -- including two journalists for Reuters. (The video, below, contains disturbing images and language.) The footage, a film from the helicopter's point of view, looks uncannily like the video game scene in "Battlefield: Bad Company." Worse, the soundtrack to the actual killing sounds like a videogame. A spokesperson for WikiLeaks, the whistleblower website that brought the footage to light, even commented that the helicopter pilots act "like they are playing a computer game and their desire is they want to get high scores" by killing opponents.

At one point, one of the pilots laughs amid the carnage. Worse, the footage reveals US ground soldiers firing on people trying to help a man wounded in the helicopter assault. Two children were injured as a result.

I'm not advocating videogame censorship. And I'm not someone who believes that videogames inspire players to perpetrate real violence. But anyone looking to play "Battlefield: Bad Company" might wanna watch the real war video and then reflect on just how fun the game seems afterward.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Caught in the Filter

Now on newsstands, the new issue of FILTER magazine. Yours truly has several pieces in the magazine, including a feature on Jesca Hoop, whose excellent second album, "Hunting My Dress," is as gratifyingly unusual as it is full of great hooks and melodies. I also penned the issue's lead album review on Midlake's "Courage of Others" as well as a review of Shearwater's "The Golden Archipelago" (though flawed, it's my favorite album of the year from one of my very favorite bands). Also in the issue: interviews with Beck and Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jeff Bridges, She & Him, and The Besnard Lakes (the Montreal band's "And the Night Roared" is my second fave album of 2010 so far).

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

There's no business like snow business

The best male and female screen performance of the past 12 months? Sorry, Meryl and Jeff, it's neither of you. The winners in this category are easily Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, the Canadian skating pair who won gold medals last night in Ice Dancing at the Olympics. For good measure, they ought to take home little gold statuettes as a bonus.

I'll return to the duo's remarkable thespian abilities in a bit. But first let's recap just how many great performances (of the non-acting kind) we've already seen at the Vancouver games.
  • Memorably, Shaun White showcased a move called the McTwist in which he rode his snowboard up a rip curl of ice and catapulted himself into a void in the night sky where even Icarus wouldn't dare take wing. White somehow defied the very laws of space and time because, in less than three seconds, the red head contorted himself and his board through a mathematically impossible combination of twists, corkscrews, and horizontal and vertical rotations. Then he tapped into his inner Capt. Sullenberger to pull off a miraculous switch-side landing. If NBC had affixed a camera to the bottom of his board, your television would likely have keeled over from the vertigo.
  • Even more impressive: The aerial skiers who briefly turn into human helicopters, their upended skis twirling in futility as the grappling hooks of gravity take hold. The skeleton crews who hurtle, head first, around icy chicanes at 90 mph fall into the same bracket of life-insurance premiums and are just as entertaining. I also marveled at the downhill skiers who careen off the edge of a precipice and somehow manage a semblance of flight that a Dodo would envy.
  • Best James Bond tribute: Even the skiing biathletes who shoot targets with rifles weren't as showstopping as the 007-inspired short program by Korea's Kim Yu-Na. She ended her record-score routine by pointing her fingers like a gun. But her real firepower came from a triple lutz-triple toe loop that made one look to ceiling to see if there wasn't a puppeteer pulling marionette strings. (Scott Hamilton's squeal triggered an avalanche in Whistler.)
  • Bode Miller, whose threatened to become known as Miller lite after his hard-partying lifestyle led to a dismal showing at the Torino games, notched several medals at the games, including one gold. On the podium, the natural-born skier displayed a humility and inner calm few would have imagined him capable of.
  • Lindsey Vonn, the famous swimsuit model and occasional downhill racer, had sports writers churning out stories about her injured shin threatened her Olympic participation. Silly rabbits. This is a girl who was evacuated by helicopter after a crash in the Torino Olympics and still checked herself out of hospital to compete the next day with a bruised hip. Was there any serious doubt that she wouldn't compete? Girl's got grit. Her triumph was hard won and an early highlight of the games.
  • America's Evan Lysacek wasn't favored to beat Adrian Brody lookalike Yevgeny Pluschenko. The Russian gold medalist seemed superhuman. Who else, after all, could pull of a quadruple toe loop. But Lysacek won out thanks to rigorous training, finer artistry, and the canny tactic of accumulating points by executing several jumping passes in the second half of the program.
If I seem overly US-centric in my list of highlights, forgive me. It's NBC's fault. The coverage is heavily skewed toward American competitors. Anchor Bob Costas shows off a chart of the medal count so regularly that you'd think we still lived in the mercantile era rather than one of globalization. Props to Steven Colbert for pin-pricking the balloon of jingoism with his "Defeat the World" mantra.
Which brings us back to the Canadian skaters, Virtue and Moir. As brilliant sports writer Mark Sappenfield observes in The Christian Science Monitor, their routine was so winning that, "For a night, it seemed, the 48th parallel disappeared and we were not two brotherly nations, but brothers." (If you missed the duo's events over the past three nights, watch them here and here.)

Indeed, their performances over the past three nights were transcendent. Not just because of their inspired choreography, perfect synchronicity, surprise moves, and agile athletic ability. The duo's second dance was distinguished by a red-hot passion that threatened to turn the icy stage beneath their skates to slush. It was there in the deeply affectionate glances between the two as they held hands during a turn around the arena prior to the most important skate of their lives. And it was there in the tender embrace concluded their elegant routine, a ballet on ice in which the swan-like skaters seemed to fall in love while millions watched. The duo could have performed in an arena filled with fans of UFC extreme cage fighting and there wouldn't have been a dry eye in the audience.

Which is why it was heartbreaking to discover that Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue (who resembles a young Kate Beckinsale) aren't romantically involved. Theirs is not a tale of love off the ice, like Torvill & Dean, Jamie Salé and David Pelletier, or even Moira Kelly and that hockey player in "The Cutting Edge." They’re just great friends. Indeed, Moir is dating another prominent skater. All of which underscores how powerful the duo’s performance was. Like actors in a great romance movie, they made us believe in a great love story. In the process, they created the single defining moment of these games.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

How the Oscars got boring

Just about every year, weary journalists and pop-culture pundits trot out opinions on how to save The Academy Awards because the Oscars no longer draw big viewership figures. In 1970, the televised ceremony had a 43.4% share in the ratings. Today, it's less of an event. Last year's show -- which was up 6% on 2008 -- boasted an "American Idol"-scale audience. Which is pretty good, but hardly phenomenal in this era of long-tail media fragmentation.

Typically, suggestions on boosting numbers tend to go like this:
  • If you can't get Billy Crystal as emcee, how about Jay & Conan as co-hosts?
  • If you can't bring back Björk and her egg-laying swan dress, how about inviting Lady Gaga (with Cher as her stylist).
  • If you can't get star power like Brangelina on the red carpet, how about Snooki and The Situation?
  • How about inviting Steve Jobs to the podium to unveil a new Apple product?
  • Or how about just awarding Best Picture to "Twilight" for that all-important 13-18 demographic? (Bonus idea: Have Justin Bieber hand over the statuette.)
Such cosmetic changes will move the needle some. But our culture has fundamentally changed since Oscar's heyday. For starters, Hollywood movie stars aren't as important anymore. In part, it's because there's less mystery and less golden-era glamor.

There was a time, long ago, when stars weren't over-exposed. Apart from the occasional appearance on Johnny Carson or a Jerry Lewis telethon, your only opportunity of seeing actors outside of the movies was tuning into the Oscars. Nowadays, you can watch Clooney picking his nose on TMZ. In the old days celebrities were largely presented in publicist-controlled puff pieces in "Life" magazine. Now, you can read about Brangelina's sex life in US Weekly right after you've flipped past pictures of J.Lo pumping gas in the "Stars: They're Just Like Us!" feature.

More fundamentally, stars no longer have the currency they once did. Studios now rely on well-branded properties and high-concept stories, rather than big-name actors, to pack theaters. That's true of nearly all 2009's top-grossing films: "Avatar," "Star Trek," "Transformers," "Harry Potter," "Twilight," "Alvin & The Chipmunks," "The Hangover," "X-Men: Origins," "2012."

There are one or two exceptions to that hardening rule: Robert Downey Jr. helped sell the "Sherlock Holmes" brand name with the capital he gained from starring in "Iron Man 2." Sandra Bullock and Meryl Streep can reliably draw a crowd in the right project. And Will Smith could probably star in a sequel to "Howard the Duck" and still notch a big opening weekend. But can they turn the awards telecast into a "must see"? Nah.

So, if celebrity is no longer a significant draw for the Academy Awards, how about the movies? The gambit of expanding the Best Picture nominees to 10 films will likely improve audience numbers as the category isn't just limited to middlebrow fare. The 9 nominations for "Avatar" will be a cause for celebration for the Academy and ABC because the last time America gave a damn about the Oscars was the year of "Titanic." The studios will cheer, too, since the awards are primarily about selling movies (and flattering egos).

Problem is, the Academy awards are all over before they've even begun. The awards season is oversaturated with award shows, many of them televized, ranging from The Golden Globes to the Spirit Awards. Moreover, each of Hollywood's major guilds -- Actors, Producers, Directors -- hold their own ceremonies and the big winners in each category tend to be a safe prediction of who will win in the corresponding Oscar category. We now know that Jeff Bridges will win for Best Actor, Sandra Bullock for Best Actress, Kathryn Bigelow for Best Director, and The Hurt Locker for Best Picture.

All of this happens before the Academy Award nominations have even been announced. In fact, the only surprises today in the widely predicted nominees was the inclusion of "The Blind Side" for Best Picture and "In the Loop" for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Simply, there's no element of suspense anymore.

Monday, February 01, 2010

A few thoughts on the Grammys

Last night, Taylor Swift's narrow-slitted eyelids popped into Katy Perry-like wide-eyed surprise. Her numerous wins, including the top prize of Album of the Year, left me googly-eyed, too. Swift's off-key warbling during a duet with Stevie Nicks woulda got her kicked off "American Idol" in round one. At that moment, I blessed the inventor of the mute button.

Other performers opted for autotune, though worst offenders Jamie Foxx/T.Pain/Slash still managed to sound outtatune during their messy medley.

That unwieldy collaboration typified the Grammy approach: Cram as many star names onto a stage at once. As usual, the Grammys were all about selling product first and foremost. As Jon Pareles of the New York Times noted,

"The Grammys have found the right balance of performance and award — which is to say, the awards are strictly a sideshow. A recording business desperate for sales wants to expose as many items as possible, and most performers were introduced along with their song titles in case anybody wanted to download them immediately. Medleys were the rule, squeezing in more songs per minute, and as usual the Grammys featured generation-crossing duets."

Most bizarrely, Andrea Bocelli and Mary J. Blige shuffled around a duet of "What Child Is This?" It's the worst idea for a collaboration since McCain/Palin. When Eminem, Lil' Wayne and Drake appeared on stage, it seemed like the most exciting showdown since the gunfight at the O.K. Corral. It was hard to tell since CBS's censors used the mute button for large portions of the song (if only they'd done that for Taylor Swift). The Eminem, Lil' Wayne, Drake performance should have included mash-up of "Pants on the Ground." Someone please buy Lil' Wayne a belt.

Lady Gaga, meanwhile, achieved the impossible: She was more flamboyant than even Elton John during their medley of "Speechless/Your Song." Gaga was the easy winner in the most interesting race of the night: most bizarre dress. Other nominees included Imogen Heap, Pink, Katy Perry. Gaga seems to have stuck to her New Year's Resolution to dress less conservatively this year. (Ok, I made that up.) But at this point, the only way she can top herself is to arrive at an awards ceremony on a pair of stilts while wearing Big Bird's costume. At any rate, she'll never top last week's weirder than weird awards outfit worn by the infinitely more talented Fever Ray. The ever-kooky Imogen Heap, whose excellent "Ellipse" deserved more than just a win for "Best Engineer," wore a tech thingy that transmitted live photos taken by fans.

Of all the performances last night, my favorite was watching Jeff Beck playing a Les Paul (the guitarist has barely touched anything other than a Strat since the early 1970s) during a tribute to the instrument's creator. His solos during "How High the Moon" were elegant and gorgeous.

I was also surprised how much I enjoyed the Usher/Carrie Underwood/Jennifer Hudson/Celine Dion take on Michael Jackson's "Earth Song." Collectively, they deployed more melisma than an entire season of "American Idol," but it worked great and reminded one how good Jackson's pop can be.

Beyoncé, too, showed off her range. The golden goddess's medley was pure Sasha Fierce -- particularly as she channeled angry Alanis for the "You Oughta Know" segment -- with almost as much crotch crabbing as Eminem. Bizarrely, and for no apparent reason, she was surrounded by a phalanx of men dressed like a SWAT team. The only other time you'll see that many paramilitary troopers on TV is when Hugo Chavez clamps down on a protest rally on CNN. Or an in-store signing session by Justin Bieber. In a rare television appearance (cough), The Black Eyed Peas tried to outdo Beyoncé by dressing Fergie like "Tron" and surrounding themselves with a troupe of dancing robots.

Like so much of the mainstream pop on display last night, the Black Eyed Peas offered up '80s-influenced soulless plastic dressed up in substance-less style. The worst offender yet, Ke$ha's "Tik Tok," mercifully wasn't released in time for a nomination this round. But it'll no doubt be in contention for Record of the Year in 2011.

I'll have the mute button at the ready.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The curious case of Che chic

On Tuesday, Criterion released Steven Soderbergh's "Che" on DVD. Originally released to cinemas in two parts, the Criterion Collection edition is one complete film. But I think you'll learn more about Che Guevara, Che chic, and Hollywood's baffling love affair with the revolutionary icon by watching this entertaining video (below) than sitting through all four hours of Soderbergh's biopic.