Wednesday, January 30, 2008

American Idol chatter

My latest Huffington Post covers Tuesday's American Idol. Yes, I am that shallow. And here is Wednesday's Idol post. Yes, I'm still shallow.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Back Door Slam (Again), Nicole Atkins, Mike Leigh and the Blind Boys Of Alabama

A quick update on my outings. Saw Back Door Slam again at the Mecury Lounge. The lads were smashing, as always ("Thank you very much indeed!") with a few new tunes mixed in, including a cover of the Robert Cray song that gave them their name. (I still prefer my take on their name - the Back Door Slam is the sound of kids running out to play in the summertime.) And word of mouth is tremendous. The first time I saw them, there were maybe 15 to 20 people, the next time 30+, the next time even more and this show was crowded. Not quite sold out, but close, I think. Hey, touring still works!

Then saw Nicole Atkins at the Bowery Ballroom. Have to admit, when I first heard about the show, I assumed she was opening up for someone. Nicole herself said it was "the weirdes" day of her life. A strong crowd and she joked that she didn't even recognize everyone. (That's when you know you're getting somewhere, when the audience isn't just filled up with family and friends.) She has a great voice and is a real performer. A few of the songs are weak, but she barrels through them and had some great covers: the Doors' "Crystal Ship" and a raucous sing-along with the opening acts finale on Fleetwood Mac's "The Chain." Every indication she'll just get better.

Then on Saturday I saw Mike Leigh's new play "2000 Years." Not terribly involving and it certainly didn't help that New York actors were trying to nail London accents. Without that specifity of location (it might as well have been East Orange, New Jersey), the play loses something. Still I doubt an all British cast would have lifted it up too much. Seemed to be about a middle aged couple whose son becomes interested in praying and his Jewish roots much to the chagrin and mocking humor of his parents and sister and grandfather. But there's also the mother's sister who is mysteriously out of touch for 11 years (or seven!) who naturally reapears in Act Two. A very good melt down scene of family squabbling gave a little late momentum and I sort of liked the ending, which I didn't see as terribly optimistic as some did. Glad to have seen it and the grandfather (Merwin Goldsmith) was outstanding. Glad I saw it but not one of Leigh's stronger efforts.

And Monday night I saw the Blind Boys of Alabama doing a live radio broadcast from The Cutting Room on 24th St. The audience was composed of people who advertise on WFUV as some sort of maketing tie-in. A strange little set-up, actually, with a tiny stage, just a FEW tables (all reserved) and a pile of more tables and chairs in the corner that people were discouraged from using. Most of us stood, with some very aggressive wait staff constantly pushing in and out with trays of drinks to those few tables. It was only an hour long, so it was rather bizarre to see people ordering and ordering again. But the Blind Boys were pros. "Amazing Grace" set to the melody of "House of the Rising Sun," a few tracks from their new CD and a very fun Jams Brown-like shtick. The three central members sat on chairs and each one would pop up to take a verse or join in on the chorus. The heavy-set one on the left was a real performer, making every time he stood up into an event bursting with promise. At one point when tehy were really soaring, one was singing and the other two kept standing up, with one of the guitarists putting his hand on their shoulder and sitting them back down. They'd do so then pop right back up, moved by the music or so it seemed. Very fun. On a more practical level, the guitarists also had to keep an eye on the singers to make sure they didn't wander to close to the front of the tiny stage and topple off. When one of them wandered/was led off stage and into the crowd with a long, long wire trailing behind his mike, it seemed as fraught with danger and excitement as any Hollywood stunt. I couldn't help thinking, "Can't someone spend $200 on a wireless mike for the man?" Great fun. Just wish it were longer and they'd done something from "The Gospel At Colonus."

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Best Movies of 2007

1. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford
2. Lars and the Real Girl
3. Zodiac
4. The Wind That Shakes The Barley
5. There Will Be Blood
6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
7. L’Iceberg
8. Michael Clayton
9. Ratatouille
10. Once
11. The Host
12. This Is England
13. Superbad
14. Control
15. The Bourne Ultimatum

And here's why:

1. The Assassination of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford -- Sure this western is beautiful and gauzy in a Terence Malick way. Sure you can tune it out as soon as t starts waxing poetic. But despite it's remarkable technical accomplishments and eye for detail (I still remember the shot of gravel starting to vibrate as a train comes down the tracks), what really sticks with me are the performances. Brad Pitt can be a fine actor and he's very good here as the wary Jesse. But Casey Affleck is just magnetic as Robert Ford, a weasely, whiny, heartbreakingly vulnerable kid who just wants to be accepted but may be too awkward and thin-skinned to ever feel like he really has been. One of the questions of the movie is what might have happened if everyone hadn't picked on Robert at one point or another. Just a remarkably assured, intelligent drama. And despite everyone making nice, I have to feel there's an even longer, even better version by director Andrew Dominik waiting to be released. Why else would the director of one of the best movies of the year be so invisible in the media and not even provide a commentary track for the DVD of a movie he spent seven years working on?

2. Lars and the Real Girl -- a guy starts dating a sex doll. No, it's not the premise for a gross-out Farrelly Brothers comedy. It's the beginning of a sweet, sad little gem. Ryan Gosling is a marvelous actor but unlike, say, his brilliant work in Half Nelson, I wasn't focused on his performance. I was just caught up in this odd, strange movie where an awkward, almost autistic guy uses a sex doll to give himself confidence. Once he's "dating," Lars finds the courage or at least the reason to go to his brother's house for dinner, to attend parties, to slowly get back into the world he retreated from after his father died. More Frank Capra than Preston Sturges, this movie also shows a small town simply accepting this strange situation and getting on with it. (Really, you just have to accept things in small, isolated towns -- there's nowhere else to go.) It strikes such a wonderful balance I found myself both caught up in the emotions when Lars and his "girlfriend" are having an admittedly one-sided fight and laughing at the idea that I could feel caught up in the moment. It's a doll, for goodness sake. But actually, it's Lars and the film also shows how wonderfully flexible people are. Lose a limb, lose your sight, bring home a date of another race or religion or the same sex, have a fascination with bugs-- you name it. It's amazing and beautiful how easily people can come to accept the unusual. Truly an original.

3. Zodiac -- a long, meandering, obsessive look at the reporters and cops who become entangled in a serial killing spree and just can't let go. This is leagues better than anything director David Fincher has done before, thanks to a terrific cast that is so over-populated with great actors that even the tiniest role is filled with someone sharp-eyed audience member will recognize from other movies. Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo and Robert Downey Jr. are just the tip of the iceberg here. Some truly spooky moments, but the violence occurs mostly early on with most of the movie settling in with a feeling of dread and unease that you want to shake but just can't. Deeply unsatisfying, with numerous jumps forward in time that had audiences laughing and groaning when I saw it in the theater and an inconclusive finale that mirrors the true story it's based on. Deeply unsatisfying except in the only way that matters -- it's terrific.


4. The Wind That Shakes The Barley -- this drama about the troubles in Ireland is brilliant at showing how violence corrupts the noblest of causes. First, you're killing the British troops occupying your country. Then you're killing the Irish troops that collaborate with them. Then you're killing friends who were bullied or tortured into aiding the enemy. And then before you know it you're pointing the gun at your own flesh and blood. Marvelous Ken Loach with Cillian Murphy coming into his own as the would-be doctor who can't escape the blood.

5. There Will Be Blood -- Yes, the final little bit is a tad deflating. But at its best there was nothing better and few equal to this visionary, obsessive (there's that word again) drama about wildcatting for oil. Daniel Day Lewis doesn't act, he just disappears into the role of Daniel Plainview, a deeply suspicious and wary man who regrets the very few times he opens up his heart. In contrast, Paul Dano is acting up a storm (in the best possible sense) as a preacher who squares off against Plainview time and again. Was there a better scene all year than the one where the preacher forces Daniel to repeat over and over that he had abandoned his child? Was there a bolder score? No. Unshakeable.

6. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly -- a lovely movie that one-ups the pretty good, best-selling memoir of a French magazine editor who is suddenly paralyzed and spends the last year of his life unable to do anything but blink one eyelid. Happily, he is surrounded by beautiful women and uses that eye to "type out" his memoir. Bold camerawork and a wonderful cast led by the cruelly overlooked Mathieu Amalric (I really believed he would get an Oscar nomination). Fun, sexy and moving without a moment of sentimentality.

7. L’Iceberg -- here's a thoroughly unexpected gem. It's the story of a woman who is locked into a walk-in freezer overnight, gets angry that her husband and children failed to notice she was missing and becomes obsessed with traveling to a real iceberg. But the joy here is in how the story is told. Except for a few unnecessary lines of dialogue, this dlightful film is basically silent, a la Jacques Tati. Hilarious physical comedy, goofily fake set backdrops and a leading lady that could be Olive Oyl's sister add up to a real treat.

8. Michael Clayton -- this drama starring George Clooney feels as much of a throwback as Steven Soderbergh's The Good German, which was famously shot using only the techniques available in the Forties. Michael Clayton isn't an exercise or stunt -- it's just an intelligent drama centering around corruption and a down-on-his-luck attoryney (Clooney) caught up in it all. Clearly made for adults, which already makes it unusual, Michael Clayton revels in fine acting (from the hammy but fun Tom Wilinson to a memorable Tilda Swinton and above all Clooney) and a crackerjack story. Nothing revelatory except for the fact that they can in fact still make 'em like they used to.

9. Ratatouille -- a delightful film about a rat that yearns to be a gourmet chef. I could talk about the way this story celebrates artistic endeavor, its allusions to other films and works of art, the luxurious 110 minute running time (so unusual for an animated film). I could also talk about how it was a massive hit overseas compared to its mere blockbuster status here (where the film made $200 million). But all of that might distract from the story itself and how the film builds one absurd idea after another until you're gasping with laughter at the frightening, grotesque but perfectly reasonable scene where dozens of rats are caught whipping up a culinary treat. Yet another Pixar triumph.

10. Once -- I've been leery all year of over-praising this modest film. The story of a street musician who bumps into other artists, puts together a band and records an album, it couldn't be simpler. What sticks with you are the moments where musicians just jam together -- the scene where our hero and a female pianist slip into a music store and just start arranging a new tune is both lovely and the best depiction of artistic endeavors in a long time. Later, there's a priceless moment when a bored engineer hears them running through one number and slowly realizes this ragtag group is actually pretty damned good. It ends very well, too -- a lost art and one of the saving graces of many a film. Until Juno, this was clearly the word-of-mouth hit of the year and one that deserved it very much.

11. The Host -- a monster is on the loose in South Korea. Everything Cloverfield wants to be and isn't can be found in this terrifically entertaining flick. Just a tad long, perhaps but great characters and a great creature and, frankly, the sight of Asians fleeing in fear from a monster simply can't help but bring a smile of delight to the face of any movie buff.

12. This Is England -- a blistering drama about punks in Maggie Thatcher's England? Not quite. This Shane Meadows drama sidesteps expectations a bit by focusing on the lost, needy, genuinely touching relationships between skinheads that would normally be dismissed as racist little bastards. They can be that, too, of course. But humanizing them makes their bad acts all the more shocking and their good moments all the more despairing. Only a too pat nail-on-the-head finale keeps this from greatness.


13. Superbad -- yes, the goofy cops subplot is overplayed a bit and too long. But I didn't laugh harder all year. Like most successful teen comedies, the heart of Superbad is sweet and sincere. Yes, they keep talking about scoring with chicks, but what the semi-clueless kids really want (and fear) is a real relationship with a girl. Jonah Hill is a tad aggressively one-note (there are other words besides the F word, Jonah). But Christopher Mintz-Plasse is very good as Fogell and Michael Cera (who has a smaller role in Juno) remains winningly sweet. His friendship with Hill is a real one (complete with the annoying ways that only friends can piss you off) and Cera is just so darn appealing in a very particular, dorky, lovable way that every time he's on screen you're just...happy. Much better, to me, than Knocked Up.

14. Control -- yet another musical biopic and this one about a band I knew was important but didn't really care about: Joy Division. But Sam Riley's performance as Ian Curtis (especially in the concert scenes) was so magnetic and Samantha Morton so typically compelling as his put-upon girlfriend that I found myself thinking about this movie long after it was over. Pat in the way biopics usually are, but the music is compellingly gloomy in a teen angst way and yes, I bought their three albums and dove in happily. Beautifully shot as well.

15. The Bourne Ultimatum -- not the best of the trilogy. But the simple fact that they made a trilogy with each film solid and satisfying in their own way and Matt Damon (who deserves a payday as much as any movie star around thanks to his good taste and solid chops) is so unexpected. Usually, we spend our time hoping a bad series will get better (all the Batman movies) or a good series won't screw it up (the Christopher Reeve Superman flicks) and getting disappointed every single time. Not here.

Other notables: In Between Days was a Sundance discovery that satisfied, La Vie En Rose had the performance of the year thanks to Marion Cotillard as Edith Piaf, The Lives Of Others had the other performance of the year thanks to the late Ulrich Muhe, Grindhouse was a lot of fun and the revival of The Other Side Of The Mirror: Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival was a revelation that captured Dylan at his most fluid when he grew from a folkie to a rock star to an icon in three short years.

For the complete list of all the movies I saw in 2007, go here.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Worst Bond Title Ever

Bond 22 is now officially called "Quantum of Solace." Good lord, are they TRYING to tamp down the success of "Casino Royale?" I can't even imagine someone at the box office asking for two tickets to "Quantum of Solace." Surely everyone will say, "The Bond movie." Dreadful, dreadful, dreadful.

American Idol Week Two -- Wednesday

More on Idol at Huffington.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

There Will Be Blood Versus No Country For Old Men

They got the most Oscar nominations and they're the only Best Picture winners to be nominated for Best Editing. And the Best Picture winner is almost always nominated for Best Editing. The last time it wasn't? 1980 when Ordinary People won Best Picture. Maybe Michael Clayton will pull a similar stunt. It has huge support from actors, giving the movie three acting nods (Clooney's first Best Actor nod, along with Tilda Swinton and Tom Wilkinson) while TWBB and NCFOM both got noly one acting nod and its total noms (7) is only one behind their 8. If there's a year for a real upset, this could be it with Michael Clayton and Juno spoiling for a fight. But the frontrunners are Blood and No Country with No Country being in the lead all season so don't get your hopes for anything more than it winning Best Picture and Director.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Coming Next Week: My Favorite Movies of 2007

You've waited long enough. (And the Monday after that: my favorite CDs.)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Virgin Megastore At Union Square To Close?

Rolling Stone reports that a realtor has announced the Virgin Megastore Union Square outlet will be available in 2009. Good God, is it possible that Virgin too will be disappearing from NYC? Since they've shut their LA, Chicago and Salt Lake City stores, it sure seems likely. They'll have the Times Square outlet -- which is always jammed with tourists. But for all practical purposes, music stores are literally disappearing from Manhattan. Gee, maybe one reason the music industry is in a slump is because record labels laughed while Wal_Mart and Best Buy sold CDs at a loss, driving music chains out of business. Now those megastores are reducing the already paltry space they devoted to Top 40 CDs and switching to DVDs. I'm running out of stores in Manhattan where I can even think of going to browse for CDs. Sigh.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Back Door Slam, Nicole Atkins, the Stones and More

Here's my latest roundup of features for the NY Daily News. I did a profile of three new artists: Back Door Slam, Nicole Atkins and Bell X1. Then I launched the celebrity book club, a fancy way of describing a feature that tells what celebs are reading, in this case Jason Lee, Shia LaBeouf, Cassandra Wilson, Casey Affleck, and Kenny Melman of Kiki & Herb. Then my first review -- I think -- for the NY Daily News, of the book Sway by Zachary Lazar and finally some TV picks for the week. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Signal The Escape Of More Stories

A bevy of stories in the NY Daily News today. First, a profile of Ice Cube pegged to the comedy First Sunday. Then author Charles Webb pens a sequel to "The Graduate." Connecticut band Signal The Escape hits NYC and finally a tiny little preview of "Day Zero" because I'm always happy to say nice things about Elijah Wood. Enjoy.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

My Latest Features

A triple play at the NY Daily News this Sunday. First, my feature on jazz composer Terence Blanchard, whose latest CD "A Tale Of God's Will," is one of the year's best. Then a chat with soul singer Sharon Jones, who has a cameo in "The Great Debaters," and whose new CD is also one of the best of 2007. Finally, a look at mid-season tv. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Is "The Golden Compass" Franchise Alive?

"The Golden Compass" is doing gangbusters overseas. In the US, its almost done at $60 mil. But overseas it has grossed three times that ($187 mil) and looks easily headed towards $250 mil. That would mean more than $300 mil worldwide. Not great for a movie that cost $200 mil, but not awful either. Recently, dragon flick Eragon (itself based on a quartet of books) grossed a disappointing $75 mil in the US but another $175 mil overseas (its budget was about $100 mil) making what looked like a flop opener the first in a franchise. And of course DVD sales are extremely strong in the fantasy category. So the weak opening of the film meant New Line panicked and finally made nice with Peter Jackson so "The Hobbit" could go forward. But with huge overseas grosses and the possibility that some of the production cost for the sequels will be lower because of all the money poured into the first one, there's still a chance they could roll the dice and make both parts two and three at the same time. Two stumbling blocks remain: will Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig want massive paydays for an iffy franchise and of course the biggest problem of all is that parts two and three are a LOT more controversial. It may just not be worth the bother, but with $300 mil box office worldwide and another $200 to $300 mil worldwide from DVD (very conservatively), it won't be because they lost money.