Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Is There Something I Should Know?

Why, yes, there is. My latest NY Daily News features include one on Duran Duran and another on Office Space's Ron Livingston.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Another Sign Of The Apocalypse

This week Bruce Springsteen's "Magic" was the top-selling CD in the country...with total sales of 77,000. (Yes, that includes downloads.) That's an insanely low number and every reason you can think of for low sales applies...and more. This is the fall and big releases from Kanye West and Kid Rock have just come out but they're selling even less. It's as if it were Thanksgiving weekend (a huge week for movies) and the number one film grossed $6 million. In my LIFETIME, album sales have never been this low.

But before I could recover from that news, I turned on the "American Idol" spinoff "The Next Great American Band" and the theme this week is BOB DYLAN SONGS. They're all singing Bob Dylan songs. It is indeed the end of the world.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Godard a Hack Or Just Not Interested In Movies?

Here's my latest Huffington Post, including a review of Godard's Breathless, the biggest mistake of his otherwise resolutely boring and uninteresting film career.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Springsteen at the Garden

I had a great time at the Garden last night (Wednesday, October 17) with my friend Kitty (of "Kitty's Back" fame) and HER friends. How could I not have a great time? It was Bruce and the E Street Band, after all. Still, his last tour -- the Seeger Sessions tour with a mostly different bunch of musicians -- was such a blast, such a hoedown, such a triumph (as good as I've EVER seen him) I knew this wouldn't measure up. I was right.

The show was worth every penny. It always is with Bruce. But problem number one is his new album "Magic,"which Rolling Stone absurdly gave five stars, the "instant classic" rating reserved for masterpieces like "Pet Sounds" and "The Joshua Tree." (Not that those got five stars of course, for various reasons.) First, I really dislike the way producer Brendan O'Brien records Bruce's voice. That voice hasn't aged in the least, as his ferocious live vocals proved last night. But on the album, it all sounds glossed over, airbrushed...lazy, even. There's no urgency in them and I wasn't surprised to hear the vocals were recorded without the band and that people were brought in to overdub their parts. And of course it's not a great batch of songs. His last really good album was "Tunnel Of Love," when you're talking about original songs. His last great album was "Seeger Sessions" (covers) and before that really "Born In The USA." But he can still deliver a tune. "Radio Nowhere" grows on you and both "Long Walk Home" and "Girls In Their Summer Clothes" can enter the canon with heads held high.

But if any proof were needed that many of the other songs don't cut it, last night's show was the evidence. He included eight songs in the show and most every time they brought a quick halt to any momentum. Not "Long Walk Home" or "Girls" -- people shouted out the choruses as soon as they began. But the rest could't hold up.

The show began with "Radio Nowhere" of course and Bruce launched right into "The Ties That Bind," a great blast of fun and a tune I don't think I've ever heard live before. (I'd love to hear him do "The River" album from start to finish some day.) I called my friend Sam's cell phone because it's his favorite Bruce song and he would love to hear it live and since the tour isn't coming to Florida yet, this is as close as he can get right now.

Then came "Lonesome Day," one of the few songs from "The Rising" I really like. (That album was treated with too much post 9-11 reverence, I'm afraid. "The Seeger Sessions" -- especially the revamped version -- is much better.) The tone of the show was set from the start. Time and again, Springsteen would launch right from one song to the next. There was very little chit chat; just one song after another. If there hadn't been so many songs from "Magic" in that list, it would have been heart-stoppingly good. And the mood was musically celebratory but lyrically dark. To me, this felt like Springsteen's most overtly political set list, with a note of desperation always lurking just behind the beautiful noise.

Things ground to a halt right there, however, thanks to "Gypsy Biker" and "Magic," neither of which held up well, though the crowd was with him for both. Then came the highlight of the night: "Reason To Believe," "Adam Raised A Cain" and "She's The One" piling on top of each other. I think by now most hardcover Springsteen fans love "Nebraska" most of all, not just because of that album's low-fi nature or the fact that casual fans have barely heard of it. No, it's not snobbism, just the simple fact that "Nebraska" has ten great songs, not a weak one in the bunch. It's stark, but there's nothing better to pop in when you're driving cross country late at night. (And it's safer than trying to read "On The Road," believe me.)

"Still at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe," he sings from that "Nebraska" closer. A thumping, boogie beat propelled the song but the real kicker was Bruce singing the final verse into one of those distortion microphones that made him sound like Tom Waits wailing from beyond the grave. It was so out there, so radical, so carnival barker-ish, you just had to laugh. Then it dissolved into a sledgehammer rendition of "Adam Raised A Cain" (can there be any other way of playing that pounding number from "Darkness on the Edge of Town"?). Obviously drawing on a father and son conflict, nowadays the song sounds more general and apocalyptic. THAT dissolved into "She's The One," the epic number from the epic album "Born To Run" and boy would I love to hear Springsteen perform THAT album in order, in its entirety. Come on Bruce, it's all the rage; jump on board. I was in heaven right here.

We came right back to earth with "Living In The Future," which Bruce preceded with his speech about Orwellian times. I wish the song met his lofty goals, but other than a sing-along chorus, it doesn't stick. "The Promised Land" came next and it did a much better job of addressing the anger and anguish over having our country's ideals betrayed time and again by the Bush administration:

"There's a dark cloud rising from the desert floor
I packed my bags and I'm heading straight into the storm
Gonna be a twister to blow everything down
That ain't got the faith to stand its ground
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted"

Then came "Brilliant Disguise," an unexpected treat from "Tunnel Of Love," but still, an odd song to duet with Patti on since it's about marital breakup. "Backstreets" howled through the Garden next, followed by "Darlington County," a rave-up from his biggest seller, "Born in the USA." We had seats just far enough behind the stage so that we weren't getting a profile of the band, but seeing their backsides. It was a fun view, actually, since we got to see everyone telegraphing to each other their next move, watch Bruce toss off one guitar and grab the next, mop his face with a towel soaked in ice water and again and again he would gesture to the people to the side of him (us) and the folks behind, and with every seat full we raised a roar every time. At the end of "Darlington County," he was slumped over a railing facing us, in despair over the fate of his buddy in the song (poor Wayne!) and we got the full effect of his acting.

"Devil's Arcade" brought the temperature back down again, followed by "The Rising," which along with "My City in Ruins" (not played) is the other keeper from that album. "Last To Die" is just rote; strong musically in a way, but too blunt and straightforward to be more than a polemic. That was followed by another song from the new album. But it's my favorite, "Long Walk Home," and the crowd knew every word and sang along lustily, unlike with most of the other new numbers. It captured everything he wanted to say about our current political situation, but in a timeless manner:

My father said "Son, we're lucky in this town,
It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps its arms around you,
Nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone"

"Your flag flyin' over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't"

It's gonna be a long walk home.

It doesn't get more patriotic, or pointed, than that.

The finale was "Badlands," which for me has become sort of the iconic Bruce song in concert. Unlike say "Born To Run," it's not known perhaps by casual fans. But the entire crowd pumps its fists and sings along with every word. "I believe in the faith that COULD save me...." Bruce was mature beyond his years then and lyrics like those will endure the way something like "Who'll be the last to die for a mistake" never will.

Then came the encore with the other gem from "Magic," the widely heralded "Girls in Their Summer Clothes." The crowd sang the first chorus without prompting, proving it's their favorite too, and the vocals live are much better than the breezy, too happy ones on the album. (Please don't use O'Brien again.) It's a great Brian Wilson melody and a great chorus, but I have trouble completely embracing a song with the lazy line "She cut me like a knife." Still, it's a highlight. Then came "Thundercrack," an early years concert closer that was the precursor to "Rosalita" as a barnstorming finale. It was a lot of fun to hear, but it's no "Rosalita" and is much weaker melodically and lyrically. Fine for the faithful, but for me it didn't build momentum. Then came "Born To Run" and I called my sister Libet's cell phone because the line "Tramps like us" always reminds me of her.

That segued into the synthesizer riff from "Dancing In The Dark," the biggest hit of his career (#2 for four weeks, though I see his cover of "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" hit #1 in '85.) That simple riff is the most important melody of his career, since Springsteen added this song at the last minute when he knew "Born In The USA" was missing a pop smash. Everything else in his career followed that very intentional smash hit. Personally, I've been singing a good acoustic, twangy version of the song in the shower lately. The riff is a little cheesey sounding now, so it's good to remind yourself of the dark lyrics. Listening to the tens of thousands of people in the Garden shout out "I wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face!" is kind of amazing. The song certainly doesn't pander, does it? It all ended with an extended raveup of "American Land" from the Seeger Sessions. Good fun, but frankly the folky band on the last tour played the hell out of it. The E Street Band made it less quirky, less authentic, less interesting -- to a degree, of course. The interaction of Bruce with Little Steven and the Big Man Clarence and Patti and the rest is still a joy to watch.

No show with gems like "Badlands" and "Darlington County" and "The Ties That Bind" can help being anything but a blast. The new tunes may not all hold up, but Bruce and the band and his back catalog always will. The final disappointment was that he called it a night after just two hours and twenty minutes. It was 10:40 and he almost NEVER stops before the "curfew" of 11 p.m. and usually goes 15 or 20 minutes longer. Maybe the babysitter needed to get home? Thanks Kitty for a fun night. Can't wait to see him again.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Casey Affleck Interview

Here's my latest NY Daily News feature, a profile of Casey Affleck, who is sensational in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and good in Gone, Baby, Gone.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Fred Claus

Joe and I have a thing for bad movie taglines -- the descriptive phrase at the bottom of a movie poster. Classic ones include "Alien" ("In space, no one can hear you scream") and "Jaws II" ("Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water,").

We were tickled by the abysmal tagline for the Keanu Reeves football scrubs movie "The Replacements" -- "Pros on strike. Regular guys get to play." Joe insists this wasn't the tagline, just somebody's attempt to describe the film that somehow got put in as the tagline by mistake. It couldn't be more banal and straightforward.

Today I saw a doozy of a tagline for "Fred Claus." It was so bad -- and long -- that I burst out laughing and stopped so I could call Joe and read it to him. The next three people walking by stared at the poster, wondering what I found so funny. It shows Vince Vaughn on a Big Wheel, looking dorky with Paul Giamatti dressed as Santa in the background, rolling his eyes. The tagline?

"Christmas comes every year
But this holiday season
Santa's brother is coming along for the ride."

Could it be any more tiresome or dull? No. And I thought of a better one in two seconds:

"Santa's brother? Oh, brother!"

Maybe I should be in marketing.

Friday, October 05, 2007

How To Save The Book Industry

My latest Huffington Post is about how the book industry needs to start giving away free audio and downloadable versions of any book someone buys in hardcover. They also need to bring back the inexpensive, mass market paperback.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Friday Night Frights

As you (and by "you" I mean "me"), I love "Friday Night Lights." The first season was terrific, filled with great acting by a great ensemble and enough tweaks to the expected plot twists to keep me off balance. It almost didn't come back for a second season, despite holding on to every single person that sampled the show -- despite being aired on five different nights (counting reruns on Saturdays and Sundays), the six million people that watched the second episode never wavered. That's a great sign of a devoted fan base.

But the only thing worse than having a favorite show cancelled when it still has so much to offer creatively is having a favorite show renewed but then ruined by a network that recognizes its critical acclaim but decides they have to juice it up or simplify the show in order to reach a new audience, thus ruining what made the show unique and special in the first place. Recent examples include "Boomtown,""American Dreams" (in that case they just ruined the last few episodes but rushing storylines as the cancellation clock ticked away) and "Veronica Mars."

Now all the early reviews of the first episode of the new seasin (airing Friday) make me fear NBC has done it with this one. First, the network insisted there would be less football. That makes sense -- take out the football, which is the only thing that matters to most of the students and stars of the show, the job of the lead character and the passion of the entire small town the show is set in. That's like cutting down the operating scenes in MASH or the newsroom scenes on "Mary Tyler Moore."

Worse, everyone hints at some absurd, melodramatic plot twist that dominates the first episode that strains credulity and threatens to throw the entire series out of whack. Since we've already had an attempted rape, I can only assume/fear it's some sort of murder/retribution or other ridiculous development. I've gone from eagerly awaiting Friday night to fearing it. Have they ruined my favorite current show?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

DVD Hidden Treasures

Here's my latest Huffington Post on DVDs, this one focusing on the remarkable range of odds and ends that make it onto DVD. Comment away!