Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The Perfect Storm

A work surge slamming right into a scheduled vacation has made a hiatus necessary, alas. Figure on seeing Mssrs. Tosy and Cosh back around the second week of July.

Before I leave, let me urge you greatly to check out the Spider-Man 3 trailer over at iTunes. Good, good, good (good, good) stuff.

Until Whenever

Friday, June 23, 2006

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

1. "Sara" - Bob Dylan - Bob Dylan Live 1975 (The Bootleg Series Volume 5)
A loose, relaxed, fiddle-flecked live rendition.

2. "March" - Beethoven - Fidelio (Opera)
A short, well, march from Beethoven's sole opera.

3. "Pump It Up" - Elvis Costello - This Year's Model
Quintessential Costello - tongue-twisting lyrics, a driving keyboard part, emphatic bass line.

4. "Thunder Road" - Bruce Springsteen - The Essential Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen in epic mode.

5. "The Quidditch Match" - John Williams - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Big action cue from the first Potter film.

6. "I Used to be Color Blind" - Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Irving Berlin Songbook
Swinging and sweet.

7. "Movement II" - Philip Glass - Symphony No. 2
A slow, evocative, very typically "Glass-ian" movement.

8. "Captured" - James Newton Howard - King Kong (Film Score)
Regrettably kind of generic bit of dramatic music from the hastily composed Kong score.

9. "Poor Thing" - Stephen Sondheim - Sweeney Todd (Original Broadway Cast)
A marvel of storytelling skill, as Angela Lansbury gives us a meaty plateful of exposition through a delightfully regretful, wistful song.

10. "Tom Tom's Room" - U2 - The Million Dollar Hotel
Moody, ambient, Eno-esque bit from the soundtrack.

Until Whenever
The 13-Year Old Girls Got It Right

Tom the Dog posts about some "classics" that he hates. Fair enough. But in the process, he slogs fairly heavily, as many, many have before him, against the mega-successful Titanic. And in some senses, I think he's being a little unfair.

See, like many film critics at the time (Titanic has a reputation for being slammed by critics, but a lot of the sniping came after it proved so mega-successful--a large majority of the initial reviews were fairly glowing) I think Titanic is brilliant, and very much deserved its Oscar. The film uses its epic length very well, is very well-acted (when has Kate Winslet NOT BEEN good?), and the structure is ingenious. As Ebert pointed out, they show us the mechanics and timing of the ship's sinking early on, so that when it actually happens, we know what is happening logistically and can focus on the people.

And it's the people's reactions that make the film - the disorientation, panic, horror, and numb fatality that the passengers go through as the ship slowly sinks was all executed with perfect pitch. I felt the tragedy, and was really moved by what was happening. Sure, the central romance is a little hokey, but when did that become a crime? When did classic, "love at first sight," star-crossed, big and bold romantic devotion become too cool for school? I don't know, but it ain't too cool for me.

And the famously derided dialogue? There seems to be this notion out there that a good film has to have "clever" or "witty" or "well-written" dialogue. Not true. Listen around you - you'll hear plenty of bad dialogue. Film as a medium has dozens of elements it can use to its advantage, and what we can easily forget (or willfully ignore) is that great films can achieve greatness by focusing on only some of them. Some films are "about" language. Some are "about" spectacle. One approach is not inherently better than another. Titanic is not about language; it's about visuals and structure. And it executes those elements with aplomb.

I should frame all of this by admitting that I haven't seen the film in its entirety since its release. But I'd like to revisit it again; I certainly remember the last hour and a half or so, the slow and inexorable sinking of the ship, as just masterfully executed. It's easy to bash the super-popular (see Forrest Gump for another example of a well-reviewed, popular film that started to get bashed once it became evident that it was going to be a huge hit), but the fact remains that sometime--sometimes--the public gets it right.

Until Whenever

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Random Top Ten!

Random Top Ten!!

In honor of the rapidly approaching release of Superman Returns, here are my top ten superhero movies.

10. X-Men III - Don't buy the negative hype. See here for more.

9. Hulk - Unfairly maligned. The sense of power and destructiveness was very well-handled, and the comic books style visual flourishes were a nice touch. The story could have and should have been better, though.

8. Batman - Another one where they got the vibe right, good acting, very effective visuals, but an unfocused and flat plot.

7. Batman Begins - Easily the best Batman film to date, with a very canny balance of seriousness, exciting but real-feeling action, and a touch of humor. It's that last one that can easily overwhelm superhero films and push them off course, when the touch becomes more than that.

6. X-Men - A bit underfed, but marvelously cast, acted, and directed, with the perfect mood and sense of seriousness.

5. Spider-Man - In retrospect, Ebert was right; the effects made Spider-Man a tad too cartoony in full web-slinging action. But the execution of the origin story was absolutely spot-on.

4. Superman 2 - The good stuff manages to seriously outweigh the bad, but that bad stuff - whew. (Did he just throw a Saran Wrap "S" at him?)

3. Superman - I like that they took their time with the origin stuff. Not too rushed and nicely epic.

2 - Spider-Man 2 - A very close second. The focus (one villain) was right where it needed to be, the emotions real-feeling, the ending earned, and the effects a real step up. Just a great, great superhero film.

1. X-Men 2 - Singer got the cash he needed, and the scope and ambition were ably served. The casting continued a stellar track record (Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler? Brilliant.) And the story balanced wonderfully the demands of cinema with the mythos from the comics.

Until Whenever
(just give me a minute - something in my eye)

Here's the most inspiring news story I've seen since the story of the autistic high school basketball team manager who got to finally play -and who drained three-pointer after three-pointer when he did. The nut of the story is that a little girl with cancer wished to be a superhero for a day--and was granted her wish by the Make-A-Wish foundation. I love that the little girl's wish wasn't materialistic or celebrity-driven, but instead an inspired act of real creativity. Read the story; you'll be glad you did.

Until Whenever
Sour Grapes

So the Miami Heat have won their first NBA championship. On the plus side, my beloved Nets were now evicted from the playoffs in the second round, not just by any team, but by the NBA champions, so that pill is a little easier to swallow. I like that.

But otherwise? No. No, I am not happy seeing the Heat celebrate their first-ever NBA title. Why? Two reasons, mostly:

I don't like seeing the egomaniacal Pat Riley rewarded for basically only deciding to coach when he thought his team had a chance of winning, kicking out a fine, hard-working coach in Stan Van Gindy in the process. For the past few years, Riley has stayed on the sidelines, not willing to put in the hard work of coaching if the chance at a title was not real. Then, suddenly, when it looks possible, he all of a sudden decides that it's time to get back in the ring? The ego and arrogance astound me.

But, as a Nets fan, seeing Alonzo Mourning rewarded with his first NBA title galls me the most. When Mourning first came to basketball back after undergoing a kidney transplant, after it seemed like he was never going to play again, after his career was all but over, it was with the Nets--who gave him a very sizable contract and took a huge risk on a player who, obviously, could have fizzled in a big way, physically. But when the Nets made some moves Mourning didn't like, when he didn't feel they were a real contender, he immediately started pouting, basically demanding a trade. Then, this year, after the Nets had gotten rid of him and he was back with Miami, he publicly accused management of (and excuse the all-caps, but I still can't believe the audacity) DELIBERATELY PLAYING HIM TOO HARD IN AN ATTEMPT TO GET HIS KIDNEY TO FAIL SO THAT THEY COULD GET RID OF HIS CONTRACT. Of, more or less, trying to kill him to get out of paying him. Remarkable. So, no, I don't fell good - at all - for Mourning's inspirational comeback tale.

As an aside, back in October, I predicted where I thought the teams would shake out in each division. Boy, was I wrong! (For just one example - I had the Mavericks only taking the 8th seed in the playoffs. Hee-hee.)

Until Whenever

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Let Me Count the Ways

Now that the official 2006-2007 season is well behind us, I thought it was time to reflect on what my favorite series were from last year. For our purposes here, I'm only considering shows I watched in more or less "real-time." In other words, I'm still not caught up on Battlestar Galactica yet, so I won't be counting it here, even though it truly is just a superb series. So, my ten favorite series of the past season:

10. The Simpsons - The truth is that watching TV at 8PM on a Sunday just doesn't happen for me. I've caught several episodes this year, though, and while the show is not really close to the heights it once reached, it's still a damn solid, damn funny show, capable of really getting me now and then. Perhaps my biggest laugh of the season, in fact, came courtesy of The Simpsons, in an episode in which we see Lisa try to turn Groundskeeper Willie into a gentleman in an obvious homage to My Fair Lady. Lisa, trying to get Willie to confide in her his real dreams and aspirations, asks him what he really wants. And he starts to sing the classic tune: "All I want is a room somewhere." Then he stops. Silence. I laughed for minutes.

9. House - Too formulaic by half, but the writing is so sharp - and Hugh Laurie is so damn good as House, and the character so well-drawn and compelling - that I don't mind so much. Still, I would like to see them move further afield from the standard template they've, in just two seasons, worn to pretty much a nub.

8. Big Love - This series is just fascinating. I think polygamy is wrong. I'd be against a law making it legal. And yet I have no idea why. Logically, I can't explain why it should be illegal. And yet I'm against it. This bothers me quite a bit. And this series doesn't help much. A delicate balance of sweetness and real creepiness that I don't think I've seen before makes for a strange TV-watching experience. I love this family and am slightly repulsed by them at the same time. And I love that the creators zigged when we thought they would zagged by "outing" the family in the season finale, rather than, as I kind of expected they would do, keeping the device of their having to hide as a prominent feature. Can't wait for season two.

7. - My Name Is Earl - Another show that perhaps leans too heavily on a formula but is saved otherwise by wonderful acting and writing. And who knew Jamie Pressley could be this good? Not the creators, I don't think, given how quickly they abandoned the bits about Joy trying to get Earl's money, which seemed like it would be a long-running gag initially.

6. ER - Still compelling, still capable of true greatness (the James Woods episode), and still highlighting some stellar female acting and female roles, which can be hard to come by even in today's high-quality TV environment (Maura Tierney and Parminder Nagra, I'm looking at you).

5 - The Sopranos - It suffered a little from the fact that this was not a full season, eight-month layoff be damned, which messed with the timing some. Still, those first few episodes were easily classics, and the "gay Vito" storyline ended up being much more poignant and honest than I expected it to be.

4 - The Office - It can sometimes get just a wee bit too uncomfortable and cringe-inducing for my tastes, but otherwise this is just a hilarious series. I do wonder how long they can keep up the "being filmed for a documentary" conceit--after a while, won't it seem odd that they are still being filmed? Another show that surprised me by resolving, or at least starting to resolve, what seemed like it would a long-running source of tension, in having Jim and Pam reveal their feelings for each other in the season finale. Is there any chance Steve Carrell won't be taking home a (richly deserved) Emmy?

3 - How I Met Your Mother - A canny and sharp-eyed blending of the traditional sitcom with the newer, single-camera style exemplified by shows like Arrested Development and The Office. Great casting, very sharp writing, a wonderfully playful sense of time and use of flashbacks within flashbacks, and an engaging, surprising, twisty long-term story to tell. I find that I look forward to this show more than most others.

2 - Gilmore Girls - I've already made my case as to why this season wasn't the shark-jumping fiasco so many thought it was. Let me just add here that Lauren Graham took character turns that would be hard for anyone to play--character turns that, from interviews, she really didn't care for or believe in - and knocked them out of the park. Watch that drunken Lorelai speech at Lane's wedding again and revel in its brilliance even more as you realize that the actress thinks that her character really wouldn't be doing this. I'm so curious to see how much of a role she has in her upcoming big-screen, big-time supporting role in the Bruce Almighty sequel Evan Almighty. I'm hoping it's meaty enough to really let her have some fun with it.

1 - Lost - A stellar second season that took the show in surprising new directions while cementing our sense that, on this show, anything can happen. They did show some signs of slippage in terms of juggling the sheer quantity of compelling characters they have, and I really don't understand why they are looking to cast more, but still--I am completely and wholly hooked, and will happily re-watch this whole season before season three starts in the fall.

Until Whenever

Monday, June 19, 2006

Random Top Ten

Random Top Ten!!

Random Top Ten Paul Simon Songs

(note: not Simon & Garfunkel songs. For some reason, trying to compare and contrast "Sounds of Silence" and "Obvious Child" is making my head hurt. Also, I've yet to get the new album. So nothing from that.)

10 - "Adios Hermanos" - A stately processional of a song showing off an authentic-sounding doo-wop sound married to Latin rhythms.

9 - "Late in the Evening" - If only for those killer horns.

8 - "St. Judy's Comet" - A lullaby. How nice. "Cause if I can't sing my boy to sleep/Well it makes your famous daddy look so dumb/look so dumb." What a line.

7 - "Further to Fly" - Moody and kind of dark; not typical Simon.

6 - "American Tune" - A gorgeous ode to the America that can be. Sung by Mandy Patinkin in Yiddish on his Mamaloshen album.

5 - "Homeless" - Just a gorgeous track, with the Ladysmith Black Mambazo singers making pure honey out of Simon's music.

4 - "Train in the Distance" - Such a sad, wise, and yet still hopeful little song.

3 - "Obvious Child" - Best use of percussion I can think of in a rock song.

2 - "Still Crazy After All These Years" - Those jazz chords are just beautiful.

1 - "Hearts and Bones" - "One and one half wandering Jews." Quintessential Simon.

Until Whenever
A Look at the Nightstand

No. No, I have not read those last 50 pages of Quicksilver. I might. Some day. But, as of now, it sits on the shelf. And even if those 50 pages get read, the book will have defeated me, since I no longer have nay stomach for tackling the second two books in the Baroque Cycle trilogy. I bow to you, Quicksilver. You are better than I.

Darkness, Take My Hand and Sacred - Before Mystic River made him kind of famous and acclaimed, Dennis Lehane wrote a series of detective fiction novels featuring a pair of private eyes as its protagonists - Angie Gennaro and Patrick Kensie - that made similar good use of Boston and its sociological history and present for a setting. These are the second and third books in the series. I read the first one a year or so ago and liked it a lot, and kept meaning to get to the rest , but for one reason or another never did. I'm glad I finally did. What I like most about this series is that what, at first blush, seem like typical series-staples that will be present throughout the books, as unchanging as James Bond, are actually important character points that, eventually, change and resolve. The relationship between Lehane's detectives, especially, seemed in the first book doomed for the kind of never-ending light sexual tension that can get old pretty quickly. But instead, their story has actually moved in these three books, and to some surprising places. Also, I like that Lehane introduces real, harmful violence into his detectives lives without papering over the effects. These detectives are changed by what happens to them, especially in Darkness, Take My hand, and there's none of that "resetting the clock" that one often encounters at the beginning of new books in series like this. This is a detective series that should be read in order, and I get the sense that in this genre that's not always the case.

Of course, as great as this stuff is, it doesn't exactly hurt that Lehane can write a crackling, real-feeling mystery. The series' weakness so far is an over-reliance on super-heroic, kind of fanciful supporting characters who seem to exist primarily to get our heroes out of seemingly insurmountable jams. Lehane's favorite of these, and a character he probably overuses, is the mountainous, psychotic, but (and I bet you knew it was coming), lovable Bubba, who has a thing for torture, a real skill for violence, and a singular devotion to occur heroes. Still--this is a series well-worth checking out.

Until Whenever

Friday, June 16, 2006

Doin' the Friday Shuffle

1. "Wave" - Antonio Carlos Jobim - Antonio Carlos Jobim's Finest Hour
Trust me; you know this track. Jobim is kind of singular, isn't he?

2. "Why Was I Born?" - Ella Fitzgerald - Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Songbook
Sweetly plaintive rendition of the wistful standard.

3. "Go Away" - Living Colour - Stain
One of the hardest rock songs I own, all crunchy, head-banging guitars and angry singing.

4. "Road So Clear" - Cassandra Wilson - Belly of the Sun
It's not that Cassandra Wilson is a bad songwriter, but just that her covers are so good that you almost wish she's just record them.

5. "Drive" - Burkhard Dallwitz - The Truman Show (Film Score)
Paranoid, skittery, almost-funky track from the point in the film where Carrey's Truman has effectively kidnapped his wife and is desperately trying to leave the island.

6. "Angela (Theme from "Taxi")" - Bob James - Touchdown
This is the only TV-theme I've hunted down and bought. Such a wonderfully sweet/melancholy piece of soft jazz. And I usually have no patience for soft jazz.

7. "Cathedral" - Thomas Newman - Road to Perdition (Film Score)
Quiet, slow, moving theme from the underrated film.

8. "Ofyn Pripetshik" - Mandy Patinkin - Mamaloshen
This is from Patinkin's all-Yiddish album, and it's a tender and nicely essayed rendition of an old Jewish folk tune (the same melody pops up in John Williams' Schindler's List score).

9. "Shawshank Repemption" - Thomas Newman - The Shawshank Redemption (Film Score)
One of my all-time favorite cues. This is the music used when Andy (SPOILER ALERT--SPOILER ALERT!!!) escapes from Shawshank. The triumphant, horn-blasting bit at the end is brilliant in how it manages to mix that sense of triumph with a real sense of loss and tragedy as well. Newman doesn't let us forget that Andy may have escaped, but that he still lost a huge chunk of his life for a crime he didn't commit.

10. "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" - Jeff Buckley - Grace
This song has a little bit of a sea-shanty air to the accordion-fueled opening, which soon gives way to a strong, ailing ballad.
Define "Inspirational"

I actually like these silly AFI specials, if only because they remind me of films I keep meaning to finally see - this year's special has me heading over to add All the President's Men, to my Blockbuster queue. That being said, some of the choices this time around I likes, some I didn't, and some just puzzled me. After all, "inspirational" is a pretty vague concept. For the next special, I really think they should start devising some more specific categories that will elicit some new choices. I mean, has The Wizard of Oz not been on any of these lists? Stuff like "Best Screen Kisses," "Best Screen Fights," "Best Screen Kids" - real specific categories as opposed to the pretty general ones they've favored so far.

Anyway, here are some random reactions to this year's stack o' films:

1 -IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE - Hard to argue with, really. I watch this every Christmas, and I find that it moves and, yes, inspires, me every time.

3 - SCHINDLER'S LIST - I see where they are coming from, but when so much of that "inspiration" is so heavily suffused by real horror and tragedy, is it really fair to call the movie "inspirational?" Even the clip they chose to focus on, with Schindler breaking down over how much more he could have done, highlighted that any Holocaust story still is, at the end of the day, a tragic one.

4 - ROCKY - Rocky loses. He loses. And it's still inspiring. How could Stallone write something this good and then never get anywhere in the same county as good again? I just don't get it.

6 - E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL - That piece of Williams score used in the finale, the one they showed in the clip, could make a blank screen remarkably inspirational.

- One of my favorite films ever, but "inspirational?" Like Schindler's List, it's much more complex than that.

9 - APOLLO 13 - As Ed Harris noted, we know how it will end and we're still glued to our seats. That's good storytelling.

20 - PHILADELPHIA - I can't mention the film Philadelphia without also mentioning that the titular Neil Young song really was the better song.

23 - THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION - I'd have placed it higher. That last shot is just killer.

26 - THE WIZARD OF OZ - This is a great film, but is it really "inspirational?" I'm not sure.

37 - FORREST GUMP - Another film that really doesn't feel "inspirational" to me. It's a wonderful fable, but, contrary to popular belief, I don't think Forest is really meant to inspire us.
39 - STAR WARS - If only for the "Han Solo saves the day" moment. And another case where Williams' score does a lot of heavy lifting.

45 - ON GOLDEN POND - I don't know; this is more of a sad film, to me.

54 - RUDY - I hate Rudy. What's the message here? If you are untalented, be a pain in the ass so that you can realize a poorly thought out dream, even if that realization doesn't actually mean anything real?

62 - BRAVEHEART - Should be much, much higher.

78 - THELMA & LOUISE - Are tragedies really "inspirational?"

80 - BABE - A thousand times, yes.

82 - FIDDLER ON THE ROOF - Nothing more inspiring than losing your family and being driven from your home.

98 - THE KARATE KID - The timing on this one is perfect. They could have ended with more, we could have seen more of the celebration, or even some of the aftermath shown in the sequel. But to end with the kick, the victory, and that's pretty much it? Brilliant.

Until Whenever

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Once and Again - Season Two: Episodes 5 and 6

Several moons ago, I decided that I would do a short write up of each episode of the second season of Once and Again (to go with my comprehensive (read: long-winded) season one look, here) as the wife and I wound our way through the DVDs. Attentive readers, reasonably enough, may have assumed that I abandoned the plan out of sheer laziness, but the fact is that regular TV and The Gilmore Girls season five on DVD got in our way. we've finally put that second disc in and watched the fifth and sixth episodes. So:

Episode 5: "Ozymandias 2.0"
This episode really kicks off what will be one of the season's larger arcs. Miles Drentell, Rick's client, reveals that a "global media conglomerate" wants to build a massive office park with the building Rick had been designing for him as its centerpiece. The effort to build the huge complex, and the tension between Rick and his wife, who is hired to represent the communities that the corporate project will displace, will be key in the season. And the episode kicks off the story well - the centerpiece is an elaborate dinner party in which Rick is called on to wow the clients and actually win the work (and, as he later finds out, save the floundering Drentell to boot). The sequence in which we see a desperate (and slightly wine-buzzed) Rick spontaneously improvise a vision and plan for the complex with some markers and a big piece of paper in front of the big-dog clients is a tour-de-force, not just for Campbell, but for the editors and director as well. For the sequence is intercut with scenes of Eli practicing guitar--and getting caught up in the same kind of intense, impressive, and vitalizing creative spirit that his father is getting caught up in. It was a nice way for the writers to both indicate that music was Eli's true calling and that he might actually have the chops to succeed, while at the same time drawing parallels between father and son. The episode also does a nice job of handling the tension between Rick and Lily the job will cause--with her having workaholic flashbacks to her father and first husband and effectively being shut up by a nervous Rick at the dinner. Still, this is all very much set up, and certainly nothing is resolved by episode's end.

Episode 6 - Food for Thought
Another arc-kicking off episode, with Rick and Karen taking Jesse to a pyschiatrist to discuss what they suspect is her anorexia. A potentially afternoon-special kind of vibe is happily avoided, as the writers treat the issue--and, more importantly, their characters--with non-sensational seriousness and attention. Rachel Evan Wood is brilliant here, as the scared, reluctant kid who can't even admit to herself that she has a problem, and series creator/episode writer/director Ed Zwick puts in a wonderful, uncredited, turn as Jesse's doctor. Small plot points around Grace's finding out about Jesse's therapy and clumsily trying to comfort/assure Jesse are handled deftly and there is one wonderful, intense scene between Karen and Rick in the doctor's office, in which, once again, the writers completely nail a salient, real point about divorce that popular culture usually misses--that even long-divorced spouses with significant others can still feel--and act as if--they are still married. Rick and Karen's realization that the doctor is right, and that they still care too deeply about what the other thinks of them is a great moment.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A Silly Parlor Game

Michael Slezak at PopWatch has an interesting little question up now regarding the rest of 2006's slate of films. Noting that Movie City News has already put out a list of the 20 leading contenders for Best Picture, he asks readers to decide, were they limited to seeing just three of them, which three they would be. My choices?

Dreamgirls (Big, brass musical about a thinly disguised Supremes) - I'm a musical theater fan, sure, but I've never seen Dreamgirls, nor do I know the score. Still, the cast and crew have me very curious, and I'm hoping against hope that this will be a hit (and not the final nail in the coffin of the film musical that's already been hammered by The Producers, Rent, and The Phantom of the Opera).

Apocalypto (Epic, Mayan, violent, shrouded in mystery) - I'm basically a sucker for anything Mel. And after his insane, should-have-been-a-disaster (and-flop) Passion of the Christ I just have to see what he's up to.

Flags of Our Fathers/Red Sun,Black Sand (Clint Eastwood's World War II epic two-fer) I loved Million Dollar Baby, and am very curious to see Eastwood do epic.

Anyone else?

Until Whenever

Monday, June 12, 2006

Music Morsels, Vol. XXIII - Way Back to Paradise

In the last decade and change, a group of musical theater composers has been, through, at the very least, copious mention in The New York Times, appointed kind of "keepers of the flame" of the kind of serious, musically sophisticated musical theater championed and written by Stephen Sondheim. While the group's membership is hardly official, and some composers are sometimes included and some not when discussions about the future of musical theater arise, by high frequency of citation, the roster would most likely include Adam Guettel, Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Jeanine Tesori. Each of these has produced scores worthy of seeking out on their own, but to the casual musical theater fan looking for a sampler of these folks output--and one sung by the premier musical theater vocalist of her generation to boot -- Audra McDonald's debut disc, Way Back to Paradise, is hard to beat.

After acclaimed turns in the plays Carousel, Ragtime, and Master Class, Audra McDonald made a relatively esoteric choice for her eagerly awaited debut album. Rather than record the same classics that most singers opt for on solo discs, McDonald chose to put together an album of exclusively "current material" to showcase some of the best new work being done in the genre. And in doing so, she put together a truly impeccable lineup of theater songs. These are dramatic, melodic, intense, playful, soaring, intimate songs--some all so at once. Only one has come anywhere close to becoming a "standard," (Jason Robert Brown's rapidly-becoming-a-cabaret-staple "Stars and Moon"), but in today's pop environment that's hardly noteworthy. The fact remains that this is an unusually potent and well-programmed musical theater disc, and one well-worth exploring. Highlights include the impish "Way Back to Paradise," the quietly dramatic abortion dialogue "Come to Jesus," the stark and open "You Don't Know this Man," the sweetly bitter ode to infidelity "Tom," the enchanting and swinging "Baby Moon," and the slow-burning-then-exploding "I Follow."

Grade: A+

Until Whenever

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Season Finale of Season Finales

Three last season finales to discuss. Into the fray (spoilers abound, so be wary):


Not as good as the "Three Stories" season finale from last year (which I actually only finally got to see right before seeing this year's), but an engaging, thought-provoking episode nonetheless. Some found it obvious, but I didn't pick up on the fact that the whole ep was one dream/hallucination until the very end - in fact, my wife picked up on it earlier, and I thought she was wrong. The story leaves us on an interesting note - is House going to be cured next year? Reports indicate that effecting the limp is screwing with Hugh Laurie's back in a major way, so it's entirely possible that that's precisely where they are heading. And if they are, I'm suddenly much more intrigued with next season than I was previously.

The Sopranos

A hard call to make, since this wasn't really a season finale, but rather the 12th episode in a 20-episode season. Sure, we'll have to wait until January to get the rest, but it's still reasonable to see this as just another episode. That being said, I do wish we had gotten a little more of a hint as to what's coming down the pike for these characters. The relentless cynicism of this show is something that can be hard to take - even with all of the sturm and drang of the initial few episodes, with Tony's near-fatal shooting and the resultant epiphanies he experienced, he has backslid to the point that he is almost the same character he was before the shooting. And Carmela's Paris-derived insights of just a few months back (in show time) are likewise pretty much tossed aside when Tony, to stop her from thinking too hard about Adriana, gets her spec house up and running again. Realizing this made me appreciate the sudden "AJ grows up" mini-arc from this ep more than I might have otherwise. Sure, his change of heart and sudden maturity seem odd, but less so when you realize that they unlikely to be real in the first place. My bet is that AJ hasn't grown up, and we'll see him abandon this phase as quickly as we saw him abandon that long hair early in the season. I know many were let down by the ep, but it has me very much looking forward to 2007's last eight.

Big Love

Big Love's season finale echoed The Office's, in a way. Both shows had built up, relatively early in their runs, what we assumed would be long-running storylines--the struggle to keep their identity as polygamists secret in the former's case, and the unspoken attraction between Pam and Jim in the latter's. And in their season finales, both very unexpectedly, and happily, resolved those conflicts. The family was "outed" and Pam and Jim kissed and acknowledged their feelings for each other. I've liked Big Love since the first ep, but I'm looking forward to the next season even more now. The dynamic of the family's having to deal with the reality of being outed as polygamists fascinates me, and I'm highly curious to see where they take it next season. Even aside form the reveal,though, this was perhaps the best episode of the season--from Albie's comical poisoning by Wanda, to the wonderful acting by Chloe Sevigny in what could easily be a completely thankless and unsympathetic role, to the remarkably steady and calm brilliance of Harry Dean Stanton, this was an eventful and engaging episode.

Until Whenever

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


I don't care what the "official" title is. I call it X-Men III. Cards on the table right off the bat: I was very impressed by the original X-Men, if a little surprised at the seriousness of tone and a little underwhelmed with the (admittedly budget-restrained) scope and scale of superhero action. I absolutely loved X-Men II and thought they completely nailed pretty much everything - the action, the characterization, the story, all of it. And X-Men III? I thought it was a step back from its predecessor, but only a minor step. In short, I loved it and thought they did, on the whole, a fine, fine job.

Now, I've read many negative reviews of the film. My goal here will be to answer some of the specific criticisms I've heard (many delineated by Harry Knowle in his review at Ain't It Cool), and this will mean getting into real, specific detail. Which means, say it with me, spoilers. So - this will be the disembarking point for those who have yet to see the film. Really. Go away now. OK? OK. All gone? Good.

OK - so what I'm going to do is to address one-by-one some specific complaints I've read in various places about this film, and where I think the complaints are wrong-headed.

Wolverine is too cuddly

Cuddly? I know we don't see them in full, gory detail (PG-13 and all), but he does kill a bunch of people in that big final battle. No, this is not a full-on Wolverine story, but would we really want it to be? Especially if they are going to be following up with a Wolverine solo film? And the storyline he does figure in, the whole reworking of the Phoenix thing, was handled very well. More on that later.

Storm is boring

I'll readily agree that the handling of Storm has been one of the series weak spots, and that Halle Berry is a rare bit of miscasting in a series that's been exceptionally well-cast otherwise. But her bits here, and her designation as the most hard-line of Xavier's proteges in dismissing the "cure" as something no mutant should ever want, was handled well. And we finally get to see her unleash some real power in a few spots. While I by no means loved Storm, in any of the films, she didn't particularly bother me here.

Cyclops is misused

I actually love what they've done with Cyclops in these films. Sure, an argument can be made that Cyclops is a much more integral piece of the X-Men mythos than he's been portrayed as being in the films, and that it's a sin that he's been so little used here. But the fact is that there are a lot of X-Men, and that film is a very, very different medium than comics. And in film, there is simply no way to handle all of these characters in an in-depth way. Understanding that, what they've been able to do in the film is to take a key X-Man, treat him as such in the first film, give him a real, tangible history and a real sense of command, create a credible history between him and Jean Grey, a believable love story, and then use him to really help cement the tragedy of Jen Grey in the third film. They were able to use him to affect a real surprise, and a real jolting moment here, as well as create a very believable and effective tragic spiral of an important character. And I am all sorts of good with that. In the film's version of the X-Men mythos, the X-Men lose their field leader (and their real leader) fairly early on in their history. To me, that's a bold choice and one that should be applauded.


I've heard some complaints that Beast is the wrong shade of blue. Sigh. Kelsey Grammar is spot-on perfect as Hank McKoy. He gives us the proper sense of size and power, the eloquence and richness of voice, the sensitive nature - it really is an inspired bit of casting. Now, at the end of the film, when we see him fight, no it's not everything we might have dreamed of. And yet it's hardly bad. And it's appropriate for the character - we see the leaping, the agility, the ferocity we need; we simply don't see it in as extended or clear shots as we might have liked. I can more than live with this.

Too many characters

Here's the thing. With a film based on the X-Men there are really two options. The first would be to do a film with really only two or three characters. My guess is that the supposedly in-development Wolverine movie will be like this. We will focus on a select few characters and really get to develop and know them. But then it's not X-Men, but X-Man or Two. Now, remember that these movies are adventures - so a lot of screen time is given over to action and exposition, and a lot taken away from character development. Maybe if you did My Dinner with the X-Men you could really get to know and flesh out seven or eight X-Men as real, deep characters. But given the restraints of the form, you simply can't. The second option, and the one the filmmakers took, is to essentially accept that many, many characters will be sketched. They will support the plot, we'll get to know them slightly, but we won't go anywhere deep. What many fans seem to want is an impossible option--a big action-adventure film with many X-Men in which we get to know each mutant really, really well. I agree - that would be nice. But it's also impossible. Given those restraints I was thrilled with how they handled Beast. Angel was a minor character, but that's OK. This is not the Angel movie. Juggernaut was barely developed - and, again, that's OK. The alternative would be to use no recognizable names from the comics and just use new, made up mutants for these minor parts that the plot needs. But that would be a silly way to go. This series could go to six or seven films, and there'd still never be time to do all the characters fans are screaming for "right." The fact of the matter is that it would take an ongoing series to really do what so many fans seem to want--to really delve into many, many characters. And, sure, that's be super-keen. But, again, in a film, this is the nature of the beast. And they've made the right choice. Harry Knowles makes a case in his review that just showing us a Sentinel hidden by shadows is lame - that it should be all or nothing. But it will never be all. And that given, wouldn't you rather have the something? I would.

They changed the Phoenix story

Of course they did. It's three films, not dozens and dozens of comics. So they had to condense it. And they had to bring it down in scale. But really, I have to admit to liking this version better anyway. That Jean Grey in the comics wasn't driven mad by power, that she wasn't a tragic example of the dictum that "absolute power corrupts, absolutely" always struck me as a copout, Making the Phoenix some kind of alien force was a total flinch. Here, we get a Jean Grey who can't control her power, or more accurately, doesn't want to. Her power is too much for her, and it corrupts her. That's a more powerful story, to my mind. As for shifting the character who must sacrifice her to Wolverine instead of Cyclops, that change is absolutely in keeping with the dynamic of these films. Like it or not, the films have made it clear that Wolverine is the "lead" X-Man. And it made absolute sense, story-wise, for him to carry that climactic plot point.

Magneto's betrayal of the de-powered Mystique

Some have dismissed it as out-of-character. I think they've gone to great pains in three films to make it clear that this is precisely what Magneto would do.

The lack of emphasis on Rogue

Again, we can only focus on so many characters. And I thought they capped her story, if in a slightly rushed way, still effectively.

Let's leave off with some things I loved, shall we?

Young Xavier and Magneto. Cool effects.

The shredding-like portrayal of Jean's telekenetic powers gone mad.

Kitty. Very well done, and very well-played. Anyone else have a hunch that she'll have a bigger part in the inevitable X-Men IV?

The continuity. Director change aside, this really did feel like a piece of the larger whole.

The epilogue(s). Implying that the cure is only temporary is a brilliant bit of foreshadowing. And the Xavier bit was genius. And planted too--that I didn't see it given the otherwise-pointlessness of the Moira McTaggert bit early in the film makes me sad.

The final fight. Nicely epic, with some great usage of powers (especially Kitty's).

Until Whenever

Monday, June 05, 2006

They Write the Songs

Paste magazine has put together a list of the "100 Greatest Living Songwriters." (The full list, courtesy of the REMs site Murmers is below). The list is interesting, if predictably biased towards your sensitive, indie-skewing, rockism-centered, music snob-type picks, with a few rap artists tossed in for good measure. Some random thoughts:

I found it odd, not so much that Billy Joel was omitted (it's largely a snobby, indie-heavy list, after all, and one that I wouldn't really expect to honor Billy Joel), but that Elton John ranked so high (on this list). High praise for Elton and none for Joel? Is the Elton John/Bernie Taupin combo really that much better a songwriter than Joel?

I was also amused by the inclusion of OutKast and Public Enemy. I don't really have an affinity for rap, although to be fair I haven't really listened to much of it at all. Nonetheless, it does strike me kind of as comparing apples to oranges. I really wish lists like these would be more rigorous with their criteria, more specific about what they're actually rating. Writing a rap song is a completely different activity than writing a regular song, and the skill sets each employs (while of course similar in some ways) are very different; comparing the two is just silly. Along that same line of thinking, note how they toss in the odd country songwriter or the Motown team of Hooland, Dozier, and Holland, while at the same time very largely sticking to indie and classic rock. To my mind, a list like this should either list just "rock" songwriters, in a relatively strict way, or be fair and really open it up to songwriters of all stripes, while at the same time admitting the difficulty in comparing songwriters of differing genres of music. For example, this list includes a grand total of zero musical theater songwriters. That Stephen Sondheim is not one of the 100 greatest living songwriters is just silly.

Also, I actually wouldn't rank U2, who any regular reader knows I pretty much worship, as high. See, to me, a great songwriter is something very specific - it's someone who writes songs that have timeless appeal and that are not dependent on the songwriter's performing personality for success. A great songwriter, even if he or she is a singer/songwriter doing their own stuff, writes songs that can be done by other singers, and, equally importantly, that often benefit from being done by others. And as much as I love U2, the vast majority of their songs aren't translatable - they only work as U2 songs, not just as songs. In other words, most U2 songs are inexorably tied to U2. Not so for, say, Paul Simon, or Dylan - their songs are brilliant songs that many, many people can perform and wring new truths out of. I'd say that Zeppelin (but not as drastically) are like U2 in that sense. Strongly tied to the original performer's strengths, weaknesses, quirks, and overall performing sense. The rap stuff also definitely fits that bill. Also, The Who, actually, to some degree, I'd say. U2 is a great band, that records and performs great songs. But I wouldn't say the band is a great songwriter, really.

Paste Magazine's List of the 100 Greatest Living Songwriters

100 T-Bone Burnett
99 Outkast
98 Jay Farrar
97 Josh Ritter
96 Jimmy Cliff
95 Patti Smith
94 Sam Phillips
93 Joseph Arthur
92 Alejandro Escovedo
91 Drive By Truckers
90 Nick Cave
89 Victoria Williams
88 Parliament
87 Lyle Lovett
86 Sam Beam (Iron & Wine)
85 David Bazan (Pedro the Lion, Headphones)
84 They Might Be Giants
83 Fleetwood Mac (Buckingham, Nicks, McVie)
82 John Darnielle (The Mountain Goats)
81 The Flaming Lips
80 Pink Floyd
79 Stephen Malkmus (Pavement, Silver Jews)
78 Robert Pollard (Guided by Voices)
77 Bruce Cockburn
76 Will Oldham aka Bonnie "Prine" Billy
75 Ron Sexsmith
74 Over the Rhine
73 Julie Miller
72 Michael Jackson
71 Vic Chestnut
70 Alex Chilton (Big Star, The Box Tops)
69 Merle Haggard
68 Allen Toussaint
67 Connor Oberst
66 Charles Thompson (aka Frank Black) (Pixies, The Catholics)
65 Bill Mallonee (Vigilantes of Love)
64 Andy Partridge (XTC)
63 Richard Thompson
62 Sting
61 John Hiatt
60 Jimmy Webb
59 Jack White
58 Sly Stone
57 Morrissey
56 James Brown
55 Dolly Parton
54 Aimee Mann
53 James Taylor
52 Paul Westerberg
51 Dan Penn & Spooner Oldham
50 Public Enemy
49 Cat Stevens
48 Gillian Welch / David Rawlings
47 Sufjan Stevens
46 David Byrne
45 Jackson Browne
44 Al Green
43 Ryan Adams
42 Loretta Lynn
41 Ray Davies
40 Burt Bacharach & Hal David
39 Led Zeppelin
38 Kris Kristofferson
37 Smokey Robinson
36 Beck
35 Steve Earle
34 John Forgarty
33 Pete Townshend
32 Lieber & Stoller
31 Carole King
30 John Prine
29 Tom Petty
28 Robbie Robertson
27 Radiohead
26 REM
25 Chuck Berry
24 Jeff Tweedy
23 Elton John / Bernie Taupin
22 Lucinda Williams
21 Lou Reed
20 Van Morrison
19 Patty Griffin
18 U2
17 Holland - Dozier- Holland
16 David Bowie
15 Willie Nelson
14 Stevie Wonder
13 Paul Simon
12 The Rolling Stones
11 Randy Newman
10 Prince
9 Joni Mitchell
8 Elvis Costello
7 Brian Wilson
6 Leonard Cohen
5 Paul McCartney
4 Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan
3 Bruce Springsteen
2 Neil Young
1 Bob Dylan

Until Whenever

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Quick Takes

Caught up with three of last year's Best Picture nominees on DVD recently. Some brief thoughts:

Good Night, and Good Luck

I have to say - I knew it would be dry, but I didn't know it would be this dry. That's not to say that I didn't like it - I did - but I wasn't as caught up in the drama of it all as I thought I'd be. It's a quiet, short, small movie, impeccably acted, lovingly filmed, and with some fine jazz singing throughout. But I expected the material, the drama of this journalist standing up to power and, in effect, dethroning it, to be livelier and more engaging. Instead, it was quietly impressive, and yet somehow antic-climactic. Still. Straithairn is simply great as Murrow and Clooney is affable and ingratiating as producer Fred Friendly (talk about a name you'd never make up as a fiction writer). One note of interest - one of the CBS secretaries/assistants is played by Alex Bornstein, comedian of Mad TV and Family Guy fame. How odd. Not that she's bad - she's fine in a very, very small part - but it just seemed strange that she'd be cast in such a serious film, and in such a non-descript part.

Brokeback Mountain

Who knew Heath Ledger could act this well? Count me among those who praised his performance here - anyone who tries to dismiss it as nothing more than an actor mumbling quietly simply doesn't know his stuff. Ledger's Enis Del Mar is a fully realized character, a complete person up there on then screen. Gyllenhal's Jack Quick was less well-defined, especially as he aged--there were moments where it felt uncomfortably like Gyllenhal was playing dress-up. This is but a quibble though, overall this was deeply moving film. Ang Lee manages to paint for us this relationship with relatively minor strokes, and by the end I was hurting for these two men who would never find peace. All the women impressed as well--with Michelle Williams as the stand-out. Again, who knew she could be this good? And the score, simple and repetitive as it was, melded with the material perfectly. This is one of those scores that remind you that film scores sometimes don't stand alone well. In support of the film, the simple, repeated themes are remarkably effective. On disc, they're just, well, simple and repetitive.


Wonderful. I wasn't sure how much I'd be liking it going in, being a sadly rather apolitical creature, but this is Spielberg, and he's yet to disappoint me. (For the record, yes, I do like Hook, and I have yet to see Amistad.) This is one of those pictures where every piece contributes beautifully to an organic whole - the quiet production design, putting everything firmly in the 70s without being obnoxious about it; the dignified, old-school acting (Spielberg's use of European actors in most of the supporting roles, as opposed to American character actors doing accents, pays of fin spades); the expertly deployed use of suspense; the stark and matter-of-fact use of gore; and the film's unflinching insistence on not trying to answer unanswerable questions. I've now seen four of the five films nominated for Best Picture (I'll get to you at some point, Capote), and I have to agree with what many critics said--this was an exceptional field. I can't say I'm sorry that Crash beat out wither Munich or Brokeback Mountain, but neither could I say that I's be sorry if it hadn't. A great year for film.

Until Whenever