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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in gr_chereck's LiveJournal:

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Sunday, December 25th, 2011
12:04 pm
Merry Christmas / Season's Greetings / Happy Holidays, y'all!
As with last year, I got to open presents with my family and then attend an evening candle-light service at church on Christmas Eve. Today is for kicking back and relaxing -- no regular Sunday service on this beautiful and unseasonably warm Christmas morning -- though my family and I do plan on having steak and lobster for dinner...

Among the gifts I received:
-- They Might Be Giants' Album Raises New and Troubling Questions (limited-edition CD from theymightbegiants.com -- I've had the free digital download, which came with my CD pre-order, since Halloween)
-- Midnight in Paris on DVD (haven't seen it yet, but I'm a big fan of the director)
-- Clothes: a lavender flannel nightgown with pink and purple designs; 2 packs of underwear (one pack of 3, and one pack of 6); and 3 shirts (a bright blue button-down with 3/4 sleeves; a pastel blue pullover blouse with floral designs down the front, also with 3/4 sleeves; and a violet sweater)
-- Candy: a box of chocolate-covered cherries, a bag of Hershey's Miniatures, a bag of Peanut M&M's, and box of Junior Mints
-- A small, black travel case
-- A new toothbrush, as well as a new holder in which to keep it
-- A bottle of firming lotion
-- $140 in cash

Peace, love, hope and joy to all this holiday season! Have a happy and safe one. :)

Current Mood: peaceful
Saturday, November 5th, 2011
2:12 pm
They Might Be Giants concert review :D
Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2011 @ The Slowdown in Omaha, NE

(I took my mother to this show; this was the third we'd seen, after the Sokol Auditorium show in July 2004, and the previous Slowdown show in March 2008.)

BEFORE THE SHOW:

7:10 p.m. -- the doors opened; Mom and I took our seats at one of the tables around the dance area, at the far left of the stage (our left). We sat grooving to the pre-recorded music playing over the PA as we watched people wander into the dance area; among the tunes we would hear before showtime were Nick Lowe's "I Love My Label" and "36 Inches High," the New York Dolls' "Looking for a Kiss," the Staples Singers' "I'll Take You There" and the 5th Dimension's "Aquarius / Let the Sun Shine In." (Oh, and we made sure to bring earplugs this time!)

7:25 -- I bought Gold Motel's album (Summer House) on CD at the merch stand (I'd been streaming it in my "Power Pop" playlist on Grooveshark since the summer of 2010). :D

OPENING ACT -- GOLD MOTEL (8:00-8:35):

The show began right on time with a brief set by Gold Motel -- a power-pop quintet from Chicago consisting of Greta Morgan (nee` Salpeter, formerly of The Hush Sound) on lead vocals, keyboards and tambourine; guitarist Eric Hehr (formerly of The Yearbooks and The Villains of Verona); and This Is Me Smiling members Dan Duszynski (guitar, vocals), Matt Minx (bass), and Adam Coldhouse (drums). Their effervescent and charming set included five of the 10 tracks from Summer House, as well as three terrific new songs (**):

-- We're On the Run
-- Leave You in Love **
-- Summer House
-- Stealing the Moonlight
-- Slow Emergency ** (I had actually heard the band perform this one during their soundcheck as Mom and I waited in line outside before 7:00)
-- Perfect in My Mind
-- Safe in L.A.
-- Cold Shoulders **

The crowd was surprisingly receptive to the band -- especially when Greta asked us "What's your favorite They Might Be Giants song?" (I couldn't hear the other responses clearly, but I said "Puppet Head") and "Who are your favorite Saddle Creek bands?" For the latter question, there was one emphatic vote for Bright Eyes, at which point Dan D quipped, "You're gonna have to fight with the dudes from Cursive who work here." XD Another high point of their set was when Dan D wondered about the "proper nomenclature" for people from Omaha; he suggested Omahaniacs, while Greta offered Omahawesomes. (Also, before going into "Summer House," Greta mentioned that the band would be coming out with their second album early next year -- I will definitely be looking forward to it...)

THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS (9:15-11:00):

The dance area was pretty much full by the end of the opening act's set, so Mom and I stayed in our seats. Because of where we were sitting, our view of drummer Marty Beller was obstructed by speakers. :( (We did eventually catch a glimpse of him after the show, though, as he greeted a few fans. :) ) Guitarist Dan Miller stood way over on the opposite side of the stage, while John Linnell and his keyboard were front and center. (John Flansburgh and bassist Danny Weinkauf kept moving around and switching places behind John L throughout the show, so I had plenty of good views of each.)

* - Overlap with '04 show
+ - Overlap with '08 show
-- Songs I hadn't seen performed live before

Setlist:
-- Can't Keep Johnny Down
-- Celebration
*+ Why Does the Sun Shine? (Here Comes Science version in which John F sings most of the sun facts; he said the heat and light of the sun are caused by the nuclear reactions between "the prescription drug Pandor, the prescription drug Flofinex, and the prescription drug Nardon.")
-- Someone Keeps Moving My Chair (John F: "From our brand-new album Flood!")
* Fingertips
-- Why Does the Sun Really Shine?
*+ Clap Your Hands (John F introduced Marty as the "2012 American Idol")
*+ Birdhouse In Your Soul
* The Guitar (no front-row dance contest or John L "Future Of Sound" stuff this time, but there were solo showcases for Danny W and Marty)
+ Alphabet Of Nations (with Dan M playing the keys, and John L with no instrument)
-- Hearing Aid (John L and Dan M back to keys and guitar, respectively)
-- Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Mom and I were on the People side, and the People won out over the Apes :D )
+ Damn Good Times
-- Women and Men (afterwards, John F gave a shout-out to Omaha's "kick-ass vinyl-record shop" the Antiquarium)
-- You Probably Get That a Lot (with Dan M on keys and John L playing nothing)
+ Cyclops Rock (Dan M and John L back to guitar and keys, respectively)

Puppet Show: The Avatars of They (projected on the big screen at the rear of the stage -- John F as the Blue Guy, and John L as the Green Guy), brought to you by new underwriter Epic Fail Baloney Sandwiches -- puttin' baloney in your face since 1972 (...now with more Meg Ryan!)
-- Spoiler Alert
-- The band played an instrumental version of "Free Ride" while the Johns took their places back on stage.

-- Cloisonne (Danny W on the keys, John L on bass clarinet)
(Here, John F talked about the new rarities compilation, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions, officially released digitally on the day of this show: He said They wouldn't be playing Their popular cover of Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" -- recorded this summer with the staff of the Onion AV Club -- because it ended up eclipsing Their entire life's work, and that was an indignity no band should have to suffer.) XD
*+ Particle Man (Danny W back to bass, John L on accordion)
+ Ana Ng (John L back on keys)
-- Careful What You Pack (I literally gasped when this started!)
(John F took an opportunity to thank Gold Motel, the crew, and Dan M, Danny W, and Marty.)
+ The Mesopotamians

1st Encore:
+ How Can I Sing Like a Girl? (performed by the Johns as a duo, with John L on accordion)
-- Marty Beller Mask (the band came back out for this one; John L sang but didn't play)
-- When Will You Die? (John L back on keys)

2nd Encore:
-- Dead (played without Dan M)
-- We're The Replacements (with Dan M on guitar)

The guys looked and sounded great as usual, and seemed to have high energy and good spirits; the crowd was positively enthused throughout, even singing along at a few points. However, there was one lull in the set, between "Alphabet of Nations" and "Hearing Aid," where lots of people started shouting requests -- John L appeared to get a little irritated about that, but I had to chuckle at this one goofball who kept calling out for "Toddler Hiway." (After the 2nd encore, people started chanting for "Istanbul," to no avail.)

Alas, I didn't get to meet anyone before or afterwards, and I didn't get pics or autographs or anything like that; but I made sure to get the main thing I really wanted, which was that Gold Motel CD. Plus, while I was hoping to hear more from this year's Join Us album (particularly "Old Pine Box" and "Judy is Your Viet Nam"), I was nonetheless absolutely thrilled about the Join Us tracks TMBG did play (especially "Celebration" and "When Will You Die"), as well as "Careful What You Pack" (from 2007's The Else) and older tunes like "We're the Replacements" and some of the deep cuts from Flood. All in all, a really fun night!

Current Mood: awake
Saturday, July 23rd, 2011
9:28 pm
Album Review: They Might Be Giants, "Join Us" :)
When I first fell in love with They Might Be Giants in late 2002 (thanks to the 2-disc Dial-A-Song: 20 Years Of... anthology), the Brooklyn alt-rock duo of John Flansburgh and John Linnell had just begun dipping into children's music with No!, released earlier that same year. Though it had been made on a whim while they were also working on incidental music for Malcolm in the Middle, the album's surprise success ultimately led to a deal with Disney Sound, with whom the band released three albums from 2005 to 2009.

In the meantime, they continued to release more mature rock music. 2004's The Spine was the first full album of new TMBG material I remember having to wait for, after having collected as much of the band's previous work as I could (including solo and side projects) throughout 2003; a mix of psychedelia and power-pop with elements of New Wave, jazz/cabaret, vaudeville/music-hall pomp and even a spot of R&B, the album is one I found generally ear-pleasing as a whole. On the other hand, the thing that struck me most about 2007's The Else was that no tracks really stood out to me, except for possibly Flans' mini-epic "With the Dark" and Linnell's loopy "Bee of the Bird of the Moth"; otherwise, both Johns seemed stuck in an aggressive power-pop mode that made most of the tracks seem overwhelmingly same-y to me. Granted, I actually consider power-pop one of my favorite sub-genres of pop/rock, but I tend to expect more from these guys when I know they have been, and can be, much more diverse...

Four years later, the Johns -- both men now in their early 50s -- have returned to rock with Join Us. That title sounds almost like a challenge or dare -- as if they're saying, "If you got sick of us doing the kids' stuff, and/or weren't satisfied by The Spine or The Else for whatever reason, maybe now's the time to come back to the fold." Unlike the two previous rock albums -- in which Linnell and Flansburgh seemed a bit self-conscious about how their "adult" rock was supposed to sound (as opposed to the more musically varied and playful children's records) -- Join Us feels like a throwback to the pair's intoxicatingly eclectic first two albums, 1986's They Might Be Giants and 1988's Lincoln, albeit with the more beefed-up, full-band sound of their later work.

Singer-keyboardist Linnell turns to power-pop again for his first few tracks here, but with considerably more joy, humor and freshness than his tracks on The Else had. Join Us opens with the gleefully vulgar leadoff single "Can't Keep Johnny Down," in which a paranoid man rants about imagined "slights"; the line "Beneath my dignity to flip off the guy / When he pulls up alongside to say my gas cap is unscrewed" especially makes me smile every time. "You Probably Get That a Lot" is lyrically reminiscent of 1986's "She's an Angel" -- only instead of a female seraphim, the narrator flirts with a beheaded saint. The radiant "Canajoharie" (named for a small town in the Catskills where both Johns have vacation homes) is a poignant/funny meditation on memory and the pull of nostalgia. And on the tender "Let Your Hair Hang Down," Linnell seems to be trying to cheer someone up; indeed, it's hard to imagine anyone not being cheered by the sheer pop beauty of this track. Elsewhere, Linnell turns to hopped-up ska for the hilariously venomous "When Will You Die," hiphop/funk for "The Lady and the Tiger" (which goes beyond Frank R. Stockton's 1882 short story "The Lady, or the Tiger?" to let us in on what might be happening behind those doors, though it retains the story's famously open ending), and burbling-synth art-rock for the cute time-travel whimsy of "2082." "You Don't Like Me," his closing track featuring sweet harmonies from Flans, is a very nice, low-key closer on the order of "Kiss Me, Son of God" (from Lincoln), "Road Movie to Berlin" (from the 1990 classic Flood) and "I Can't Hide From My Mind" (from The Spine).

Speaking of Flansburgh, the singer-guitarist is stylistically all-over-the-map here -- more so than he's been in a decade (well, outside of the children's projects, anyway). For "Old Pine Box," a short, straight-talking ode to a human trainwreck, he turns to a sort of Byrds-y folk-rock (with synthesized vocals on the bridge). Also brief and straight-to-the-point is "Judy Is Your Viet Nam," a '60s garage-style rave-up that wryly sketches a relationship gone very wrong. "In Fact" is yet another human-trainwreck tale, this time with Flans himself taking on the voice of one; a countryfied ditty with rapid-fire wordplay, and a twist of Latin in the choruses, it sounds sort of like a cross between 1990's "Lucky Ball & Chain" and 1994's "No One Knows My Plan." "Celebration" is a slice of dance-pop bliss that name-checks the artists Hieronymous Bosch and Banksy, while "Protagonist" -- in which the supposed main character is apparently finding himself reduced to a mere expository/voiceover role in his own life -- finds Flans in one his jazzier moments (reminiscent of 1992's "If I Wasn't Shy" and 1999's "Reprehensible"). On the funky "Dog Walker," his pitch-shifted vocal makes me giggle; I'm guessing it's supposed to be an ironic counterpoint to big-talk lyrics like "My mind is a wrecking ball / And someday my mind's gonna wreck all y'all." (At least, that's what it sounds like he's saying -- the CD booklet instead offers "Time has a wrecking ball / And someday time wrecks us all." Make of that what you will...) The whimsical "Three Might Be Duende" has a showtune-y quality that I quite like; David Driver, Flansburgh's costar in the 2004 Off Broadway musical People Are Wrong!, and Broadway star Michael Cerveris contribute guest vocals. Far more difficult to describe, however, is "Cloisonne`"; even in the context of TMBG's catalog it's a rather bizarre song, but I love Flansy's eerie vocals on it.

Among the two duets between the Johns: The strangely optimistic "Never Knew Love" sounds like a mashup of Mono Puff (Flansburgh's mid-to-late '90s side band) and John Linnell's State Songs, with Linnell's choruses having a dreamy electronic quality that recalls "Idaho" and Flansy's verses having a manic rock 'n' soul style reminiscent of "Creepy"; "Spoiler Alert," on the other hand, sounds like nothing else the Johns have ever recorded. They each sing a different set of lyrics simultaneously (Flans through the left channel, Linnell through the right), telling a story -- of two drivers about to have a head-on collision -- perfectly suited to this approach.

Among the 18 tracks, I think some songs ("Canajoharie," "Old Pine Box," "Let Your Hair Hang Down," "Celebration," "Can't Keep Johnny Down," "Protagonist") are stronger than others ("Dog Walker," "2082"), but there's really nothing here I don't like. And while I doubt that Join Us will win the Johns many new fans (if any), I'd like to think that longtime fans would find a lot to enjoy. *****

Current Mood: pleased
Saturday, May 7th, 2011
2:05 pm
Concert Reviews: Jonathan Richman :)
Wednesday, May 4th @ Knickerbocker's in Lincoln, NE

Mine and my dad's eighth JR show -- our fourth at this venue.

9:47 - 11:12 p.m.
-- Bohemia (new song!)
-- Let Her Go Into the Darkness
-- Sa Voix M'Attise
-- If You Want to Leave Our Party, Just Go
-- I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar / a short cover of "Limbo Rock"
-- Old World
-- Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild
-- No One Was Like Vermeer
-- These Bodies That Came to Cavort
-- You Can Have a Cell Phone, but Not Me
-- Egyptian Reggae
-- La Festa(?) (new Italian song)
-- My Appearance on the Balcony (I could've sworn I heard this one at a 2002 gig, in which case this would be the first time I've heard it since then)
-- My Affected Accent (Dad: "Hey, Jonathan! How's your accent?!" Jonathan: "Affected!" [goes into this song] :D
-- When We Refuse to Suffer
-- We'll Be the Noise, We'll Be the Scandal
-- Her Love is From Somewhere Else (new song!)
-- Vincent Van Gogh
-- A Que Venimos Sino a Caer
-- Take Me to the Plaza
-- He Gave Us the Wine to Taste


Thursday, May 5th @ The Waiting Room Lounge in Omaha, NE

Our ninth JR show -- the second one we've seen at this venue, and the third we've seen in Omaha.

9:06 - 10:30 p.m.
-- Egyptian Reggae (this and "... Lesbian Bar," I've now heard at all but one JR show)
-- Let Her Go Into the Darkness (the only song I've heard at every one of his shows!)
-- If You Want to Leave Our Party, Just Go
-- Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild
-- Old World
-- These Bodies That Came to Cavort
-- He Gave Us the Wine to Taste
-- Ya La(?) (new song -- Italian?)
-- La Festa(?)
-- I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar
-- No One Was Like Vermeer
-- Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eye Shadow
-- Time Has Been Going By So Fast
-- Her Love is From Somewhere Else
-- Bohemia (Jonathan got the audience to sing along on this one towards the end)
-- Keith Richards (new song!)
-- "Volare" (short, a-cappella cover; included audience sing-along)


COMMENTS:

The last time Dad and I saw Jonathan at these venues was in March of 2008, with Vic Chesnutt (now sadly deceased) as the opening act; we had seen the Omaha gig first, which was perfectly pleasant, and then the more lively and satisfying Lincoln gig.

This time around, there was no opening act, and Thursday's Omaha gig (in which the audience -- in the dancing area in front of the stage -- seemed largely subdued, though they really appeared to get into "... Lesbian Bar" and "Bohemia") felt kind of anticlimactic compared with the previous night's looser and goofier Lincoln gig. I swear, Knickerbocker's has got to be one of Jonathan's favorite places to play -- seeing one of his gigs there almost feels like a house party or something -- though I must say, I thought the playing (Jonathan on guitar and percussion, Tommy Larkins on drums) and Jonathan's dancing and singing at the Waiting Room Lounge gig were as strong as ever...

Dad and I didn't get to do much talking with Jonathan this time at either show -- though after the Lincoln show, I had a couple of minutes with him in which I complimented "Bohemia" (which I really hope he puts on his next album, whenever that may be...), and thanked him for playing "These Bodies That Came to Cavort" (my favorite song on the new album, 2010's O Moon, Queen of Night on Earth) and Dad's request for "My Affected Accent."

Current Mood: full
Friday, February 18th, 2011
6:01 pm
Film review: "The King's Speech"
Near the end of 2006's The Queen, there's a scene in which UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) rips into his press secretary for making one too many smart-ass remarks about Queen Elizabeth II; in his brief rant, Blair refers to the monarch having been saddled with "a job she never wanted, a job she watched kill her father!" The King's Speech delves further into the life of her father, Prince Albert, the Duke of York (aka "Bertie") -- specifically, his struggles with stammering, his speech therapy, the circumstances leading to his reluctant ascension to the throne as King George VI (his father, King George V, died; and his older brother, David, the Prince of Wales, abdicated the throne soon after being crowned King Edward VIII so he could marry American divorcee` Wallis Simpson), and finally his 1939 radio address at Buckingham Palace to declare war with Germany.

Colin Firth, whose haunting performance (as a gay professor reeling from the sudden death of his lover) in 2009's A Single Man knocked me out, is impressive as Bertie. His role here may be somewhat showier, but Firth navigates the role's rocky emotional terrain nimbly, through childlike vulnerability as well as fiery bursts of temper. Nearly his equal: the versatile Helena Bonham Carter, whose doting Elizabeth, Duchess of York couldn't be more different from her freakish, screeching Red Queen from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland; and Geoffrey Rush as Bertie's Australian speech therapist, Lionel Logue.

Screenwriter David Seidler -- who, like Bertie, had developed a stutter as a child -- compresses chronological events to shape messy history into a go-down-easy inspirational narrative, and the result is as occasionally touching as it is surprisingly funny: An early scene in which Bertie strains with massive effort just to tell his young daughters a bedtime story is especially devastating, while a scene at about the hour mark in which Lionel encourages Bertie to curse a blue streak as part of his therapy is a gleeful riot. Furthermore, Seidler works in some smart observations about the advent of radio (though it allows leaders to address greater numbers of people, the technology essentially requires them to become "actors" if they want to be more effective) and the absurdity of the monarchy itself (rulers of entire countries or empires being thrust into their position by circumstances beyond their control, and regardless of whether or not they feel fit for such a task).

The heart of the story, however, is the relationship between Bertie and Lionel; in this sense, this film is of a piece with director Tom Hooper's previous film, 2009's The Damned United, which also toyed with history (its script, by The Queen screenwriter Peter Morgan, is a loose adaptation of David Peace's 2006 novel The Damned Utd., which was itself a heavily fictionalized take on English football manager Brian Clough) for the purpose of telling a sweet story of male friendship. And like TDU's Michael Sheen and Timothy Spall (who pops up as Winston Churchill in TKS), Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush have a sweet chemistry that I thought was a real joy to watch.

I must admit I had figured The King's Speech would be right up my alley when I had first heard it was being made (especially given the cast, but also, to some extent, because of the subject matter); and the finished product did not disappoint. *****

Current Mood: impressed
Saturday, December 25th, 2010
10:33 am
Merry Christmas!
(Or Happy Holidays or Season's Greetings, if you like!)

Yesterday I got to open presents and attend a Christmas Eve candlelight service at Church; today I'll be having a steak dinner at home. :)

Among the gifts I received:
-- DVDs: Inception (yay!), Toy Story 3 (which I finally got to see yesterday -- loved, loved, loved it), and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (which I haven't seen yet, but I'm a fan of the director).
-- Clothes: A maroon 3/4-sleeve T-shirt with floral designs down the front, a black sweater-jacket with fake-fur trim, a pair of dark-blue fuzzy socks, and a pair of red, white and green booties.
-- Candy: Two small boxes of chocolates, a box of thin-mint chocolates, and a box of peppermint candy canes.
-- A manicure kit.
-- A set of plum-colored bed sheets with matching pillowcases.
-- A purple bath towel with matching hand towel and facecloth.
-- $60 in cash.

I hope everyone has been having a safe and fun holiday!

Current Mood: satisfied
Thursday, October 14th, 2010
2:44 pm
Film Review: "The Social Network"
Director David Fincher follows up 2008's epic period-piece The Curious Case of Benjamin Button -- which expanded F. Scott Fitzgerald's clever short story into a bloated, if intermittently touching and humorous, meditation on aging and the passage of time -- with the fast-paced and thoroughly modern The Social Network. Based on Ben Mezrich's 2009 chronicle The Accidental Billionaires, this film turns the founding of Facebook -- and the legal troubles that came out of it -- into a witty and whip-smart morality play.

In 2003, socially awkward Harvard undergrad Mark Zuckerberg -- portrayed by Jesse Eisenberg (Adventureland) as a profoundly self-absorbed motormouth -- has just been dumped by his fed-up girlfriend. After posting some nasty things about her on his blog, he puts his computer programming and hacking skills to work, creating a site called Facemash that pairs photos of coeds and lets guys vote on who in each pair is "hotter;" in the course of one night, it becomes so popular it ends up jamming the whole campus computer system. Competitive rowers Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (identical twins hilariously played by Armie Hammer, with help from model Josh Pence -- in shots featuring both brothers, Hammer played Cameron, while Pence stood in for Tyler with Hammer's face and voice digitally superimposed on him) and their friend Divya Narendra (Max Minghella) get wind of this, and they recruit Mark to carry out their idea for a dating site exclusive to Harvard students. Mark agrees to do so, but then decides to go above and beyond their rather elitist concept by creating The Facebook, a general social-networking site that allows students to still keep in touch outside of social settings; he gets financial backing for this from his best (and only) pal, Eduardo Saverin (Brit import Andrew Garfield, also currently starring in Never Let Me Go), who becomes the FB's chief financial officer. The trouble begins after Mark and Eduardo start expanding the FB to other campuses, catching the notice of Napster co-founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake); he meets with them and encourages them to come out to California's Silicon Valley to expand their operation even further. The wary Eduardo insists on staying behind to find advertisers to back the site, and he ultimately finds himself squeezed out of the company altogether.

The screenplay by Aaron Sorkin -- whose excellent credits include A Few Good Men, The American President, and the TV series The West Wing -- neatly skirts issues of historical inaccuracy by how he frames this tale with multiple, subjective points of view (rather than pretending to be any kind of objective, straightforward docudrama): Mark was eventually hit by two lawsuits, one from the Winklevoss twins and Divya claiming he stole their idea, and one from Eduardo; Sorkin's framing device has these five sitting around a table with their lawyers and telling their own sides of the story, leaving the audience to decide whom to believe. It may be a moot point anyway, because I think the film works best as a wry commentary on How We Live Now -- particularly living on the Internet, and how that can affect our real-world lives: For instance, Mark's ex-girlfriend sharply observes that the Internet is "written in ink" (he can't expect her to take him back after he basically shared his grievances about her with the world); and even Sean notes that although the original free-file-sharing incarnation of Napster was short-lived, it left a permanent mark on the record industry.

I must also mention the uniformly fine cast: Eisenberg is completely new to me, but he impressed me here; ditto for Hammer and Minghella. Garfield, looking like a young Anthony Perkins, first caught my attention in the art-house event Red Riding Trilogy (in which he played a dogged journalist investigating a series of child abductions/murders in 1970s Yorkshire, Northern England); his sensitive performance here is the closest thing this film has to a heart. As for Timberlake, I already knew from his many guest appearances on Saturday Night Live that he could be funny; but here he transcends mere laughs by portraying Sean with an electrifying combination of slick charm, cocky arrogance, and paranoia.

Confession time: I've never had any use for Facebook and don't intend to start using it anytime soon. Even so, I came away from this film with a newfound appreciation for how much of a game-changer FB really was (for good and for ill); and I admit it's hard not to admire the entrepreneurial spirit of people like Zuckerberg (who has become the world's youngest billionaire), motivated not so much by personal gain as by simply seeing and exploring possibilities. Kudos to Fincher, Sorkin and the cast for crafting the story of FB into the stuff of compelling drama and comedy. *****

Current Mood: satisfied
Monday, July 19th, 2010
10:25 pm
Film Review: "Inception"
After writer-director Christopher Nolan resurrected the Caped Crusader for the big screen with 2005's Batman Begins, he quickly followed up this successful reboot with an adaptation of Christopher Priest's 1995 novel The Prestige, a mind-bending tale of rival magicians. Similarly, Nolan follows up the mega-success of his 2008 Batman sequel The Dark Knight with Inception, an even bigger mind-bender that he originally conceived about a decade ago.

Inception is a heady combination of heist flick (complete with the obligatory "one last job" plot), corporate-espionage thriller and sci-fi fantasy about a professional thief named Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team who invade dreams to steal ideas. After one assignment gone horribly wrong, a tycoon named Saito (Ken Wantanabe) hires Cobb to actually plant an idea into the head of his young rival, Robert Fischer Jr. (Batman Begins' Cillian Murphy) -- to make Fischer want to dissolve the empire he would've inherited from his dying dad (Pete Postlethwaite). Cobb readily takes Saito up on the offer, if only because it may reunite him with his children, from whom he has been exiled. Unfortunately, Cobb's memories of his late wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard of Public Enemies), keep interfering with his work and complicating matters...

The story is surprisingly easy to follow, though it helps if you don't over-think things, and just let the film have its way with your head. The visuals are often stunning; and considering that this is more a film of complex plot, structure and ideas than of character development, the acting is very good all-around: DiCaprio is fine, as are Murphy (who does the best he can with the somewhat shallow material of his character), and Juno's Ellen Page, who plays a new recruit to Cobb's team (the character is basically a cipher, but she works as a sort of stand-in for the audience, as Cobb and other characters explain things to her); Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy and Dileep Rao are amusing as members of Cobb's team; and Cotillard, a beautiful and haunting presence here, is most emotionally effective. My only real complaint about Inception is that I think it turns a little too much into a conventional action-adventure in the last hour or so, as Cobb and company dig deeper into Fischer's dreams -- I kind of wish Fischer's subconscious were more, um, imaginative. (It also would've been nice if Fischer's relationship with his father had carried at least half as much emotional weight as Cobb's feelings for Mal, but there's already so much going on story-wise...). Flaws aside, though, just the fact that a film of this sort is getting people to think about it, talk about it and debate it for some time afterwards is significant, when so much other mainstream Hollywood product tends to be utterly forgettable. Overall, I found this film a pretty awesome experience, and I very much look forward to seeing it again! *****

Current Mood: sleepy
Tuesday, May 18th, 2010
12:07 pm
Film Review: "Robin Hood"
Ten years after their Oscar-winning epic Gladiator, director Ridley Scott and his frequent leading man, Russell Crowe, offer up a new Robin Hood. Some words of warning: This is not a remake of any kind, but rather a "prequel" of sorts to the more popular RH stories -- it brings the legend back to its earliest known historical context (the late 1100s-early 1200s), suggesting the circumstances under which such a noble outlaw character may have come about. The plot: Robin (Crowe, grappling with a generic Midlands / Nothern England accent), along with three of his future "Merry Men," return from the Crusades in 1199; King Richard the Lionheart has been killed in battle, and his younger brother, Prince John (Oscar Isaac, from Scott's Body Of Lies), takes over the English throne. While the arrogant King John squeezes the poor people with high taxes, his adviser Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong, also of Body Of Lies), who is an agent of the French King, schemes to stir up unrest and Civil War in England. Of course, at this point in time, the character of Robin Hood is not quite the rob-from-the-rich-and-give-to-the-poor hero we normally associate with the legend, but we do see him starting to look out for common folk.

The result of this "historical" approach is an odd mix of period authenticity and mythmaking. Comparisons with Gladiator are perhaps a bit unfair: If anything, it seems a lot closer to Mel Gibson's 1995 Oscar winner Braveheart (with dashes of Scott's own Kingdom Of Heaven and, in a climactic beach battle, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan) -- though I don't think this film quite achieves the earlier film's truly "epic" sweep. It's more meandering backstory than exciting adventure OR substantial drama; otherwise, if it were going for a lightness of touch (as with 1991's campy Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves), the script -- by Brian Helgeland, acclaimed for his adaptations of L.A. Confidential and Mystic River -- could've used more consistent humor, and the action scenes should've been less bludgeoning and chaotic.

So what, if anything, does this film have going for it? Some excellent cinematography and scenery (it was shot on location in England and Wales), and plenty of nifty arrow action. And some decent performances, too: Crowe may not be in fightin' Cinderella Man shape, but he brings necessary gravity and even a bit of charm to the role of Robin Hood; and I think Cate Blanchett is nearly his match as a widowed Lady Marian -- though here, Robin and Marian's romance is practically reduced to an afterthought... (I'd love to see these two do another film together!) Plus, besides Crowe and Blanchett's easygoing chemistry, I also enjoyed Isaac as King John; Strong as the traitorous Godfrey; Kevin Durand, Scott Grimes, and Alan Doyle as Robin's "Merry Men" Little John, Will Scarlet, and Allan A'Dayle (respectively); Mark Addy as Friar Tuck; Max Von Sydow as Marian's blind father-in-law; Eileen Atkins as King John's mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine; William Hurt as King John's former adviser, William Marshal; and Frost/Nixon's Matthew Macfadyen (woefully underused) as the cowardly bully Sheriff of Nottingham. Overall, this Robin Hood is nothing great -- but it's not too bad, either, for being something different. ***

Current Mood: thoughtful
Friday, March 19th, 2010
2:21 pm
Film Review: "Alice In Wonderland"
Disney's new Alice In Wonderland -- which confusingly shares its name with the studio's 1951 animated classic -- is actually something of a sequel to Lewis Carroll's two Alice books. A 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska, looking uncannily like a young Gwyneth Paltrow), feeling stifled in her stuffy society and longing to forge her own path in life rather than follow the one mapped out for her, ditches a potential suitor only to find herself back in Underland (which she had misheard as "Wonderland" as a child). Ever since her first Wonderland adventure, she has had the same dream about the place every night; and throughout this new trip down the rabbit hole, Alice repeatedly insists that she's just dreaming again even as she sees how different the place has become under the rule of the haughty, big-headed Red Queen (a shrill, hysterical Helena Bonham Carter) and her pet Jabberwocky (the great Christopher Lee in a voice cameo).

The script, by Linda Woolverton (who also penned the animated Disney classics Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), is basically an elaborate, high-concept fan-fiction imagining Carroll's beloved character grown up into a Victorian-era proto-feminist. In regards to having this adult Alice reunite with her childhood friends, I would've expected a funnier and more fun story; as it is, though, the character's reactions are more a vague sense of deja vu (she barely remembers the place, though many of the characters remember her) than one of genuine wonder. And when it becomes Alice's destiny to save Underland by slaying the Jabberwocky -- the only way to end the Red Queen's reign of terror and restore the crown to the White Queen (an ethereal and droll Anne Hathaway) -- what should've been an exciting and suspenseful "you go, girl!" climactic showdown ultimately plays out like a ho-hum generic battle scene. It doesn't help, either, that most of the dialogue -- except for that of roly-poly brothers Tweedledum and Tweedledee (voiced by British comedian Matt Lucas) -- lacks the wit of Carroll's wordplay.

Nevertheless, it's a cute movie, and director Tim Burton's CGI-heavy visuals are gorgeous. The casting is inspired as well, and I don't just mean Burton's twin muses/soul mates Bonham Carter (whose Red Queen, from 1872's Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There, has apparently adopted the fiery "OFF WITH HER HEAD" temper of the Queen Of Hearts from 1865's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland) and Johnny Depp (looking like a stone freak even by his typically weird standards, as the lisping Mad Hatter): They are merely part of a cool supporting ensemble that includes the aforementioned Lee, Lucas, and Hathaway, plus the voices of Michael Sheen as the fussbudget White Rabbit, funnyman Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, Crispin Glover as the Red Queen's sleazy Knave Of Hearts, Timothy Spall as the Knave's bloodhound Bayard (an entirely new character), Barbara Windsor as the Dormouse, and Paul Whitehouse as a riotous March Hare. Wasikowska, meanwhile, does a fine job of carrying much of the movie herself as the heroine.

As Carroll's wildly imaginative tales tended to be episodic, it is unusual to see his iconic characters fitted into a much more conventional, linear narrative -- the result may be slight, but I also found it entertaining, thanks in large part to the actors and the amazing visuals. ***

Current Mood: hungry
Thursday, December 24th, 2009
6:55 pm
Happy Holidays! :)
Despite all the snow that's hit my town in the past couple of days, I got to attend my church's Candlelight Service. And after a dinner of homemade chicken-noodle soup, my dad and I exchanged gifts.

Among the Christmas gifts I received this year:
-- A pair of black slippers
-- A lavender nightshirt
-- A white sweater with poinsettia leaves, holly-and-ivy designs and gold snowflakes
-- A nice reddish-brown sweater
-- CDs: The new albums by Patty Loveless (Mountain Soul II), Terri Clark (The Long Way Home), and Rosanne Cash (The List); the new 2-disc set The Essential "Weird Al" Yankovic; and the collection Pulp Hits by the British band Pulp.
-- DVDs: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (which I had seen on TV earlier this year and loved); the HBO miniseries John Adams (which I haven't seen yet, though I've read David McCullough's John Adams biography, on which this was based); and Public Enemies.
-- Candy: A box of chocolate-covered cherries, and a box of Junior Mints
-- Toiletries: Some Stridex pads
-- A canister of SoyNilla soymilk mix
-- A can of smoked almonds
-- Two bags of white-cheddar popcorn
-- A big blue mug
-- A photo album
-- 8 pairs of underwear
-- 12 pairs of colorful socks

I hope you and your loved ones have all been happy and safe this holiday season :)

Current Mood: relaxed
Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009
3:11 pm
CD/DVD Review: They Might Be Giants, "Here Comes Science" :)
Here Comes Science, the Brooklyn alternative-pop duo's third Disney Sound CD/DVD project, hit brick-and-mortar stores today -- three weeks after the 19 tracks and their 19 videos first hit iTunes for download, and two weeks after Amazon.com started shipping out the 2-disc set.

TMBG's previous Disney Sound project, Here Come The 123s, began as a high-spirited lark -- first jokingly suggested as a possible follow-up to 2005's Here Come The ABCs -- but by the end of 2006, singer-guitarist John Flansburgh and singer-keyboardist John Linnell had started working on it in earnest. Released in early 2008, 123s was something of an improvement over ABCs; the latter CD felt like merely a soundtrack to its accompanying DVD, while the former felt more consistently like a solid album. Otherwise, it followed pretty much the same basic template: It had a mix of genuinely educational songs (like "Zeroes," "I Can Add" -- which threw in a bit of Spanish for good measure -- and "Triops Has Three Eyes"), fun with digits and mathematical concepts ("High Five!", "Number Two," "Infinity," "Ten Mississippi," "The Secret Life Of Six," "Nonagon," "Even Numbers," etc.), and total flights of fancy (such as "One Dozen Monkeys" and "Nine Bowls Of Soup"). A year after its release, 123s deservedly won the Johns and their backing band -- lead guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and drummer Marty Beller -- the Grammy for Best Musical Album For Children.

Compared to the band's more mature rock albums from recent years, 2004's The Spine and 2007's The Else, the sheer musical diversity and unabashed silliness of ABCs and 123s were closer in spirit to the freewheeling unselfconsciousness of TMBG's 1986 self-titled debut (aka The Pink Album) and early B-sides like "For Science." Here Comes Science, aiming for slightly older kids than the first two Disney projects did, is a bit more reined-in -- the band hired Eric Siegel of the New York Hall Of Science as a consultant to make sure their lyrics were scientifically accurate -- but it still doesn't feel all that far removed from the tuneful smarts of the Johns' 1992 LP Apollo 18, with its odes to Pavlov's dogs ("Dinner Bell") and astronomy ("See The Constellation"). (Indeed, on HCS's "My Brother The Ape," Linnell addresses the same basic living-things-as-all-one-family theme that his "Mammal" from A18 touched upon.)

Besides "My Brother The Ape," my other favorite tracks include:
-- Weinkauf's giddy rocker "I Am A Paleontologist;"
-- Beller's New Wave-y "Speed And Velocity;"
-- Flansburgh's gratifyingly frank "Science Is Real" (in which he suggests that both faith/beliefs and scientific facts/theories have their places -- the former for pleasure and inspiration, the latter for seeking knowledge about the physical world) and "Why Does The Sun Really Shine?" (which, thanks to additional research and updated information, concludes that the sun is not so much "a mass of incandescent gas" -- as songwriters Hy Zaret and Lou Singer wrote and Tom Glazer first sang on the 1959 LP Space Songs, and the Johns have been singing in their repertoire for the past 20 years or so -- as it is rather "a miasma of incandescent plasma"); and
-- the hypnotic "Electric Car," performed by Flans' sweet-voiced missus, Robin Goldwasser.

The super-cute video collection on the HCS DVD, as with that of 123s, serves more to enhance the music (rather than to complete the experience, as was the case with ABCs). The standout clips here are Linnell's "Meet The Elements" -- which expands upon the song's lyrics to show how certain elements combine to form sugar, salt, sand and chalk -- and Flans' jangly color-spectrum ode "Roy G. Biv."

Bottom line: As much as I adore TMBG's grown-up output, I think it's great that Disney has continued to let the Johns have near-total creative control over their children's projects (even down to picking all the directors and visual artists for the videos), and I certainly appreciate the mental exercise that must have gone into writing these songs -- the challenge of having to work within certain parameters of themes and language. Personally, I think these projects are as imaginative, witty and musically varied as anything else they've ever done, and Here Comes Science is no exception.
CD: ****
DVD: ****

Current Mood: impressed
Sunday, July 19th, 2009
4:59 pm
"Public Enemies" review :)
Saturday afternoon, I went to see Public Enemies. While I only have limited knowledge of the previous work of filmmaker Michael Mann (I had only seen The Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, and parts of Heat and Ali), I was intrigued by the look of this film and I was thrilled at the prospect of two of my favorite actors, Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, working together.

I thoroughly enjoyed what I saw; but to be honest, I'm glad I waited until it had been out for a couple of weeks, and I think it helped knowing what to expect beforehand. The premise is simple: In 1933 and 1934, upon release from a nine-year stint in prison, John Dillinger (Depp) goes on a bank-robbing spree that ends in his death at the hands of the then-fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation, who named him "Public Enemy #1." Bale plays Melvin Purvis, the FBI agent who led the pursuit of Dillinger. However, if you're expecting an Oscar-bait "epic" drama or a deep psychological look at what drove the charismatic Dillinger (beyond making money and moving up in the world) and the straight-laced Purvis (beyond desire to see justice served), this is not that movie. Instead, Mann is apparently going for more of an action thriller with some drama, and his often jittery direction (using grainy digital video to add to the documentary-like feel) is meant to put you right there in the action.

I was certainly never bored at all during this film's two-and-a-half hours, and I could appreciate how Depp and Bale tried to lend some depth and nuance to their performances that really isn't there in the material. (The script was inspired by Bryan Burrough's nonfiction 2004 chronicle Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34.) Among the supporting players, I think Marion Cotillard (so awesome in the Edith Piaf bio-pic La Vie En Rose) does some very nice work as Billie Frechette, Dillinger's lady-love; and I would like to have seen more of Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) as FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen Graham (This Is England) as gangster Baby Face Nelson.

So, while I wouldn't say that Public Enemies is an instant classic (or even "great"), simply taking it for what it is, I still found it interesting and very entertaining. ****

Current Mood: tired
Thursday, June 11th, 2009
1:02 pm
Concert Review - Jonathan Richman at Vaudeville Mews, 6/10/09
This was the 7th JR show that I've taken my dad to, the first time we've seen him in Des Moines, IA (other gigs have been in Omaha and Lincoln, NE, and Kansas City, MO), and the first time my dad's gal-pal Roxann has seen him in concert.

We arrived in downtown Des Moines around 1:30 p.m. yesterday, and looked for the Vaudeville Mews so we would have a good idea of where it was. Since the venue wasn't scheduled to open until 7:30, we ate up quite a bit of time driving around town, checking out Camp Dodge (the Army National Guard base), and walking around in Merle Hay Mall (we had our dinner at Chinese Gourmet Express in the food court -- excellent bourbon chicken!). :D

It was only 6:30 when we made it back to the Vaudeville Mews, but we not only saw Jonathan and his drummer Tommy Larkins outside, we also saw Joe and Cindy -- the Iowa couple Dad and I had met at Jonathan's Omaha gig in March of last year.

We chatted with Jonathan for about a half hour; and then at 7 he and Tommy had to go in for soundchecks. (Dad helped them carry their equipment into the venue.) Dad and Rox and I walked around the block for a bit, and around 7:30 we ran into Joe and Cindy again, so we had a brief chat with them.

The venue didn't actually open until 7:50. There was a narrow hall with a bar along one side, and a line of tables with stools along the other wall; at the end of the hall was a small dancing area and the stage. (At the end of the bar was a stairway that led to an upper area with more seats and a pool table.) Dad and Rox and I took the table closest to the dancing area, and we got some drinks from the bar around 8.

The show didn't get started until a little after 9, and there was no opening act this time.

The set: 9:07-10:39 p.m.

-- Time Has Been Going By So Fast
-- The Night Is Still Young
-- an upbeat French number (Savoir au lis? Savoir matise?)
-- Let Her Go Into The Darkness
-- He Gave Us The Wine To Taste
-- Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild
-- Egyptian Reggae
-- Celestial
-- Springtime In New York
-- new song (Such a brat? My affected accent?)
-- I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar
-- No One Was Like Vermeer
-- jangly Spanish number (A que venemos si no a fracasa?)
-- new song (You can have a cell phone?)
-- Old World (Because Her Beauty... version)
-- Her Mystery Not Of High Heels And Eye Shadow
-- When We Refuse To Suffer
-- As My Mother Lay Dying

A fairly typical gig: Jonathan (on guitar and percussion) was loose, funny and charming as always -- even cracking a joke in the middle of "He Gave Us The Wine To Taste" -- and he often embellished his songs with instrumental solos, sexy dancing, and altered or added lyrics (for instance, he could take a 2-minute ditty like "The Night Is Still Young" and stretch it out to at least three times as long). Both he and Tommy seemed in high spirits throughout.

Afterwards, Jonathan had to rest his voice, but we got to chat with Tommy for a few minutes when he came out to take down his drum kit. All in all, we had a wonderful day and a great night! :)

Current Mood: relaxed
Thursday, January 15th, 2009
12:46 pm
Film Reviews: "Frost/Nixon" and "Milk"
Frost/Nixon

Say what you will about director Ron Howard (Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, etc.), but I think it's great that he wouldn't take on this adaptation of Peter Morgan's Tony-nominated play Frost/Nixon -- which I had always thought sounded cool, but never had a chance in hell of catching in London or on Broadway -- unless its stars, Frank Langella (a fine character actor from such films as Good Night and Good Luck) and Michael Sheen (whom I adored as Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen, which was also written by Morgan), were allowed to re-create their respective roles as disgraced ex-President Richard Milhous Nixon and British TV personality David Frost for the big screen. Though not a powerhouse epic like Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995), there's something to be said for a solid, modest piece of old-fashioned craftsmanship.

This film's first hour, covering the extended period of dealmaking and preparations that led Frost to tape a series of four syndicated TV interviews with Nixon in March 1977, weaves an intriguing web of differing agendas and motivations among its characters: Frost learns of Nixon's 1974 resignation in the wake of the Watergate scandal and, longing to boost his career and be taken more seriously, hopes to score a ratings-bonanza interview with him with the help of his producer, John Birt (Matthew MacFadyen of 2005's Pride & Prejudice); Nixon decides to participate only after learning that Frost will pay good money for the privilege of chatting with him, and realizing that this could be his big chance to repair his public image; Nixon's loyal chief of staff, Jack Brennan (Mystic River's Kevin Bacon) encourages him further, believing Frost to be just a lightweight with "puffball questions"; and when Frost hires author/professor James Reston, Jr. (chameleonic Sam Rockwell of The Green Mile and The Assassination of Jesse James) and TV newsman Bob Zelnick (lively scene-stealer Oliver Platt of Bulworth and Casanova) to assist him with research and questions, Reston's furious desire to "give Richard Nixon the trial he never had" makes Birt understandably nervous, while Frost is rather moved. In the second hour, the sparks really start to fly, not only before the cameras, but behind the scenes as well: Zelnick and Reston berate Frost for not being forceful enough with Nixon at first, have little patience for Frost's jet-set playboy lifestyle, and dismiss him as a mere "talk-show host"; Frost, already losing confidence in his abilities as a journalist, learns he may be jeopardizing his own career back home; and Brennan, fearing that questions about Watergate and the Vietnam War will hurt Nixon's reputation even more, becomes fiercely protective of Nixon -- to the point of trying to interfere with Frost.

The story climaxes with Nixon drunk-dialing Frost not long before the last taping -- pure conjecture on the part of the screenwriter, but the phone call is such a great character-revealing moment (suggesting that the two are kindred spirits, men from humble beginnings who must work extra hard to prove their worth in a society that looks down on them) that I can't imagine the film working without it. Langella, completely disappearing into his role, does a commendable job of humanizing the often-vilified Nixon, and Sheen is a revelation, tapping into Frost's hidden sadness and insecurity as he tries to put his best face forward and enjoy the perks of his celebrity status; both actors, rather than playing to the back row as they would've on-stage, wisely scale down their performances for the intimacy of film (indeed, the power of the close-up proves to be a major point in this story).

In this day and age, with presidential candidates and other politicians often turning up on programs like The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Late Night With David Letterman, and Saturday Night Live, it seems almost quaint that the televised Nixon interviews were seen as such a big deal. Ultimately, the film is uniformly well-acted, witty (a scene in which Platt does an impression of Langella-as-Nixon is especially priceless), and a fascinating exploration of the growing relationship between showbiz and politics. *****


Milk

Milk, the latest effort from filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting), is a spirited, rousing bio-pic tracing the career of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man ever elected to a major public office in America. Sean Penn (Mystic River) stars as Harvey, who, at the age of 40, relocated from New York to San Francisco in the early 1970s to live more openly and freely with his young lover, Scott Smith (James Franco of the Spiderman trilogy). Penn and Franco have a sweet chemistry that buoys the film's first third, but eventually Harvey gets caught up in local politics (especially in matters regarding basic human rights for homosexuals), and his relationship with the more apathetic Scott takes a backseat to his activism and political ambitions -- enter Emile Hirsch (from Into The Wild), whose performance as the tough-talking campaign worker Cleve Jones nearly matches Penn's for passion, energy and humor. And after Harvey finally makes it onto San Francisco's board of supervisors, Josh Brolin (so good in No Country For Old Men) creates a surprisingly poignant figure out of Dan White, Harvey's increasingly frustrated fellow city supervisor (and eventual assassin).

What touched me most about Milk was its celebration of democracy: When Penn-as-Milk encourages closeted gays to come out to their families, friends, colleagues, and so on (the more people who were open about their homosexuality or who personally knew someone gay, the more likely they all were to vote against a proposition banning homosexuals and gay-rights supporters from teaching in California's public schools), he might as well have been speaking to anyone who may be unhappy with the status quo -- about strength in numbers, about the importance of people getting involved and making themselves heard in order to change things. (If this film had been released before last year's Election Day, I wonder if it would've had any impact on Proposition 8's same-sex-marriage ban in California...) Anyway, I ultimately found this a very entertaining and moving film with excellent performances all around. *****

Current Mood: cold
Thursday, December 25th, 2008
7:22 pm
Season's Greetings!
I've been celebrating my first Christmas since moving to this new town. Last night I got to go with a friend to a Candlelight Service at Church; and today my dad and I had a nice dinner (turkey, corn, and potatoes with gravy) and relaxed at home.

Among the Christmas gifts I received this year:
-- A coffee-maker that also makes espresso and cappuccino
-- A cedar chest
-- CDs: The new albums by Lucinda Williams (Little Honey), Joan Osborne (Little Wild One), and Patty Loveless (Sleepless Nights), the various-artists compilation Rock The Net: Musicians For Network Neutrality, a custom-burned CD of Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers' Rockin' and Romance (thanks to twintone.com), and the Genesis box set 1970-1975
-- DVDs: Far From Heaven (which I had seen on the Independent Film Channel earlier this year and loved), and The Assassination Of Jesse James By The Coward Robert Ford (which I had not seen before today -- it turned out to be excellent)
-- Candy: A box of Thin Mints, and a bag of chocolate-covered raisins :)
-- Toiletries: Some V05 shampoo and conditioner, a package of 8 Kleenex packs, Stridex pads, and a bottle of astringent (for removing oil, makeup, etc.)
-- A canister of Crystal Light mix, cherry-pomegranate flavored
-- A penguin mug
-- A stuffed penguin
-- A little '50s-style jukebox figurine
-- A spring-loaded cookie-dough scoop (since I've taken up baking lately)
-- Some earrings
-- A quilt
-- $40 in cash
-- A scarf, new mittens, 3 pairs of colorful socks, and some knitted doilies
-- A canister of cheese-flavored popcorn and chocolate-covered pretzels
-- A jewelry case.

I hope you and your loved ones have all had a happy and safe holiday season!

Current Mood: happy
Sunday, July 20th, 2008
7:36 pm
Movie reviews: July 18th openings :)
Mamma Mia!

I went to a screening of this one on Saturday morning. I'd never seen the hit stage musical on which it was based, but I always wanted to -- it was built on the music of the Swedish pop group ABBA, something of a guilty pleasure for me since I first heard such hits as "Mamma Mia" and "Dancing Queen" used in the Australian comedies The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and Muriel's Wedding (1995) (some 20 years after the group's mid-'70s heyday). About nine years after the stage show first premiered in London, its creators -- director Phyllida Lloyd, writer Catherine Johnson, and producer Judy Craymer -- have finally brought us a film adaptation, complete with an all-star cast.

The wisp of a story concerns a soon-to-be-married young woman named Sophie (Amanda Seyfried). Raised by a single mother, the girl wants nothing more than to find out who her real father is, so when she learns of three candidates -- played by erstwhile James Bond Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth (of Bridget Jones' Diary), and Stellan Skarsgard (from the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy) -- via an old diary of her mother's, she invites them to her upcoming wedding. Despite some slightly risque` sexual humor, it's pretty much harmless fluff.

As Sophie's mother, Donna, a hotel manager and former singer, Meryl Streep -- who showed some singing chops in the early-'90s comedies Postcards From the Edge and Death Becomes Her -- is impressive, as are Christine Baranski (Chicago) and Julie Walters (Billy Elliot) as Donna's old bandmates; the three have great comedic chemistry and perfectly swell harmonies. Furthermore, while Seyfried and Dominic Cooper (as Sophie's fiance`) are new to me, I found them absolutely adorable. Too bad that Donna's ex-lovers don't fare quite as well: Skarsgard and Firth -- as Swedish travel-writer Bill and Brit banker Harry, respectively -- are woefully underused, while Brosnan (playing the dashing architect Sam), arguably the weakest vocalist of the three (which isn't saying much!), gets saddled with the most material (including two of my favorite ABBA tunes, "S.O.S." and "When All is Said and Done").

Granted, the stars of last year's Sweeney Todd adaptation didn't necessarily have the best voices, but they still felt appropriate under Tim Burton's intensely intimate, non-theatrical direction -- he well understood that, on film, not every lyric or line of dialogue needs to be belted to the back row. But the makers of Mamma Mia! seem to have forgotten to scale down their production in like manner, and as a result, some performers end up sounding more strained than others; plus, a lot of the camera work felt choppy and amateurish, taking away from what might have been great dance numbers. Still, I found it hard not to get caught up in the infectious melodies of ABBA's songs or in the energy of the performers. ***


The Dark Knight

Saturday afternoon, I saw The Dark Knight, the sequel to 2005's classy and sturdy origin story Batman Begins -- which I had held off on seeing until I caught it on the FX channel earlier this year. Frankly, comic-book adaptations aren't usually my thing, though I am familiar with the Tim Burton freakshows Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992), as well as the Joel Schumacher camp-fest Batman Forever (1995). (So unimpressed by that last one, I never bothered with 1997's critically reviled Batman & Robin.)

However, two things in particular piqued my interest in writer-director Christopher Nolan's rejiggered Caped Crusader franchise: 1) After I saw Christian Bale and Heath Ledger in Todd Haynes' Bob Dylan bio-pic I'm Not There last December and soon thereafter heard that they would both be in this, I was psyched at the prospect of these two powerhouse actors facing off with each other on screen (Jack Rollins/Pastor John duking it out with Robbie the movie star = I'm so there!); and 2) after I finally caught Nolan's 2006 magician drama The Prestige (which also starred Bale) on DVD last summer, I seriously began to wonder if his handling of Batman could be just as creative and interesting.

Batman Begins did not disappoint me, and neither does The Dark Knight. I found it an action-packed good time (though a couple of sequences, unfortunately, were over-the-top enough to make the NYC car-chase scene in last summer's The Bourne Ultimatum look like a horse race), and surprisingly fast-moving for a 2 1/2-hour flick. But even more so, I found it to be a smart crime-thriller packed with terrific performances.

As the playboy billionaire Bruce Wayne and the conflicted vigilante-hero Batman, Bale is good as usual; but the show is practically stolen from him by everyone else: Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Gary Oldman (reprising their respective roles as inventor Lucius Fox, loyal butler Alfred, and good cop Lieut. Gordon) lend fine support; Aaron Eckhart shows great versatility as District Attorney Harvey "Two-Face" Dent; and Maggie Gyllenhaal is such a marked improvement over Batman Begins' Katie Holmes in the role of lawyer Rachel Dawes (Wayne's former sweetheart who has since taken up with Dent), it's a shame that her character has less to do in this go-round. Best of all is the late Ledger in his last completed film role; his gleefully sadistic take on The Joker -- all smeared makeup, deranged nattering (his monologue about why he prefers knives over guns gave me the willies), and depraved desire to watch everyone and everything explode into chaos just for the hell of it -- is a far cry from the iconic Jack Nicholson's dapper prankster in Batman. Overall, a superior superhero movie. ****

Current Mood: hot
Thursday, July 3rd, 2008
9:42 am
CD reviews: Athens, GA bands
The B-52s, Funplex

When I first became a fan of this Georgia party band around the time of 1989's Cosmic Thing, I had no idea that they'd already been around for a little over 10 years (indeed, hits like "Love Shack" and "Roam" sounded more energetic and fresh than anything else on Top 40 pop radio at the time); and their follow-up, 1992's Good Stuff, was more of the same. But on Funplex, the B-52s' first album in 16 years(!), the foursome's talented multi-instrumentalist Keith Strickland collaborates with producer Steve Osborne -- who worked with British dance-rockers New Order on their 2001 comeback Get Ready -- to upgrade their beefed-up post-punk sound even further (and similarly to New Order), using sleek electronic effects, techno beats, and heavier guitars. This, rather than trying to compete with the young'uns in today's more hip-hop oriented Top 40, was a very wise move on their parts.

Likewise, the lyrics of vocalists Fred Schneider, Kate Pierson, and Cindy Wilson are clearly by and for grown-ups: "Hot Corner" waxes nostalgic; "Juliet of the Spirits" (a wonderful showcase of Kate and Cindy's signature harmonies) was inspired by Federico Fellini's classic film of the same name; the hysterical title cut, in which Fred takes on the voice of an over-stimulated shopaholic and Cindy plays a jilted food-court worker, satirizes the excesses of contemporary mall culture; "Eyes Wide Open" deals with an illicit affair; the fanciful "Love in the Year 3000" combines the band's sexual themes (which tend to be more playful than explicit) with their love of sci-fi; "Deviant Ingredient" evokes of the lives of singles on the bar scene; and "Dancing Now" (the best showcase of Fred's one-of-a-kind vocal style here) finds a man confronting his ex after he has bounced back from their breakup. Fortunately, they never let things get too heavy -- "Take this party to the White House lawn / Things are down and dirty in Washington," from "Keep This Party Going," is as close as this album comes to political commentary -- and they keep a good sense of humor throughout.

When I first got Funplex back in March, my initial reaction to these 11 tracks was that, except for "Hot Corner" and "Funplex" (the two songs here that could almost hold up with older favorites like 1979's immortal "Rock Lobster" and 1980's "Private Idaho"), I was disappointed in the lack of immediately memorable melodic and lyrical hooks. On the other hand, if it was going to take me numerous listens just to be able to tell the other tunes apart, I was just glad that there wasn't one on here I didn't like. ****


R.E.M., Accelerate

After the departure of drummer Bill Berry in 1997, the veteran alt-rock band's remaining members -- singer Michael Stipe, bassist Mike Mills, and guitarist Peter Buck -- carried on in an artier, more ballad-heavy direction for their next three albums. But after the third, 2004's Around the Sun, became an all-time critical and commercial low for R.E.M., the trio decided to strip things down on their follow-up, Accelerate.

Wisely, they don't try to slavishly re-create their folk-rock jangle of the 1980s, but two of the band's best assets ARE featured more prominently than they've been in a looong time: Buck's driving guitar takes on a raw sound that recalls the group's last CD with Berry, 1996's New Adventures in Hi-Fi, but avoids that album's epic sprawl in favor of a tighter, more punk-like briskness (bringing this disc to a mere 35 minutes), so that even ballads like "Until the Day is Done," "Sing for the Submarine," "Houston" (a hopeful number inspired by the disaster of Hurricane Katrina in 2005), and the corrupt-politician ode "Mr. Richards" have an edgy urgency to them; and Mills' soaring harmony vocals are better-showcased here than they've been since the 1991 smash Out of Time, especially on the ferocious and furious "Living Well is the Best Revenge," the touchingly self-effacing "Hollow Man," the power-poppish lead-off single "Supernatural Superserious," and the blistering title cut.

Furthermore, when I first got Accelerate in April, I found the majority of these 11 tunes -- except for "Sing for the Submarine" and "Until the Day is Done" -- immediately accessible, and even reminiscent of such classics as the rapid-fire "It's the End of the World As We Know It (and I Feel Fine)" and the anthemic "The One I Love" (both from 1987's hard-rocking Document). But even now, this album stands out to me as one of the year's very best. Well done, fellas! *****

Current Mood: mellow
Friday, May 16th, 2008
8:44 pm
I'm back, with concert pix!
Now that I've had some time to settle into my new place (in Pender, Nebraska -- just a couple hours' drive north of Omaha), I finally have time to relax and share some photos from the two Jonathan Richman shows that my dad and I saw a couple of months ago...


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Current Mood: satisfied
Monday, March 17th, 2008
5:22 am
Jonathan Richman concert reviews :)
March 15th @ The Waiting Room Lounge in Omaha, NE
JR's first Omaha gig since the October 2001 show at the now-defunct Ranch Bowl, which had been mine and my dad's first JR show. This was our fifth, and the second in which my mother came along with us (she had accompanied us to our previous JR show, at Knickerbocker's in Lincoln in November 2004).

BEFORE THE SHOW:
My parents and I arrived at 7:30 Saturday night and seated ourselves at one of the tables near the front of the stage. Jonathan had just finished with sound checks, so he had time to talk about music with Dad and me (he said would be willing to send us a copy of his forthcoming CD, Because Her Beauty Is Raw And Wild, if we wrote to him); also, I showed Jonathan a little write-up on him from that Thursday's Omaha World-Herald. He went off to do some other things while Dad made a quick run home to fetch an assortment of candles and "aroma buds" (scented fake roses) that we had made; by 8:45, Dad was back with the candles and aroma buds, which we gave Jonathan when he stopped by our table again. He thanked us and told us to keep in touch, as he wouldn't be able to talk after the show -- he was on doctor's orders to rest his voice after gigs since he'd suffered a throat condition (a polyp) a couple of years before. At 9:10, Dad invited a nice couple named Joe and Cindy, both longtime Jonathan fans, to join us at our table, and we talked with them quite a bit.

OPENING ACT: VIC CHESNUTT, 9:40-10:20 p.m.
The Athens, Georgia-based singer-songwriter hit the stage for a 30-minute solo acoustic set. He began by singing a goofy, slightly profane ditty as he tuned his guitar, which got some laughs from the crowd. (By this point, some people had gathered into the space between the stage and the first row of tables.) The rest of the set consisted of dark, haunting ballads spiked with occasional wry humor, sung in a weathered, soulful twang.

JONATHAN RICHMAN, 10:40-Midnight
Jonathan hit the stage, accompanied by himself on guitar and his loyal touring partner, Tommy Larkins, on drums. (For this part of the show, my dad and I, as well as Joe and Cindy, joined the rest of the crowd standing in front of the stage.)

Setlist:
Vincent Van Gogh / Egyptian Reggae / Springtime in New York / Let Her Go Into the Darkness / *Because Her Beauty is Raw and Wild / *No One Was Like Vermeer / Old World** / Here It Is (Leonard Cohen cover) / El Joven Se Estremece / He Gave Us the Wine to Taste / *When We Refuse to Suffer / Pablo Picasso / *This Romance Will Be Different For Me / *Our Party Will Be on the Beach Tonight / My Baby Love Love Loves Me / I Was Dancing in the Lesbian Bar / Surrender

Fairly typical of Jonathan's shows in recent years, including lyric changes (such as the new extra verse on "Springtime in NY"), slipping into different languages (like the French and Italian spoken bits on "Let Her Go..."), humorous patter (explaining and translating as he sang the Spanish number "El Joven Se Estremece," for instance), some beautiful guitar work, sexy dance moves to Tommy's drum solos, etc. Not to say that his heart wasn't in it -- he was as enthusiastic as ever, in fact. The one thing different that Dad and I noticed (aside from some of the jerks in the crowd who seemed more interested in being seen than in simply expressing their appreciation) was that he seemed slightly more subdued now, with his voice showing a little strain. (Indeed, after "Surrender," he told the crowd the same thing he'd told us about not being able to talk after singing.)


March 16th @ Knickerbocker's in Lincoln, NE
Mine and my dad's sixth JR show, our third at this venue. (Mom stayed home this time.)

BEFORE THE SHOW:
Dad and I arrived in Lincoln Sunday evening, around 6:30; under the impression that the doors wouldn't open until 8, we waited in our rental car. At 7:45, we saw that a couple of guys had bought tickets, so Dad went to see about buying our tickets; next thing I knew, Jonathan was inviting the both of us in as his "guests." In the bar area of the venue, we started talking with Jonathan and were soon joined by another fan named Dave, who had come out here from Boulder, Colorado. After the four of us had a good 40-minute chat, Jonathan took off and Dave went with Dad and I into the concert area (which, unlike at the Waiting Room Lounge, was in a room separate from the bar) and sat at one of the tables along the back wall to continue our talk.

OPENING ACT: VIC CHESNUTT, 9:45-10:30 p.m.
Vic opened his set a bit differently this time, yodeling as he got ready to play, and then singing a little ditty about how this was "my last night of the tour / With Jonathan and Tommy..." (No fooling, either; I remember Jonathan saying something about that at the previous gig.) After that, the rest of the songs Vic did were pretty much the same ones as at the Omaha show, but he did a lot more talking this time -- he was really funny, too. (Midway through his last number, he told about a conversation he'd had with Jonathan about "slanted rhymes" -- Jonathan had objected to Vic rhyming "Georgia" with "porked her" -- and said he wished he'd thought to say something to him about rhyming "Picasso" with "asshole.") I certainly wouldn't mind seeing this guy again! :D

JONATHAN RICHMAN, 10:50 p.m.-12:10 a.m.
Dave and I moved up into the crowd that had gathered in front of the stage while Dad, after taking some pictures, spent the rest of the set sitting at our table.

Setlist:
Surrender / Egyptian Reggae / Her Mystery Not of High Heels and Eyeshadow / Here Come the Martian Martians / Vincent Van Gogh / Give Paris One More Chance / Let Her Go Into the Darkness / The World is Showing its Hand / He Gave Us the Wine to Taste / *No One Was Like Vermeer / Old World** / *Celestial / *Our Party Will Be on the Beach Tonight / El Joven Se Estremece / *When We Refuse to Suffer / *Es Como El Pan / Springtime in New York / *(Perre Siempre Perre??) / *I'm in a Dancing Mood / *Your Dead Body(?) / Pablo Picasso / My Baby Love Love Loves Me

Granted, Jonathan didn't do as much dancing this time, he left out most of the spoken bits on "Let Her Go...," and this is the first JR gig where I didn't hear the hard-rocking "...Lesbian Bar" -- but on the other hand, he did a lot more talking, he took a request at one point ("...Martian Martians"), and during a few of the songs, he would out to the lip of the stage and perform mic-less for a few moments. Overall, as with Vic's set, Jonathan's set was considerably looser in Lincoln than it was at the Omaha show -- he seemed a lot more at home with this crowd. :)

* - new songs
** - dramatic reworking of song from JR's Modern Lovers days (1971-73), with new arrangement and lyrics

Current Mood: giddy
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