Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Powder Blue Packs All-Star Cast and Snooze Inducement

The best short description I can give about this stinker called Powder Blue is that it's Showgirls with good actors. But that may be too kind. Although the acting is dramatic and sometimes powerful, the plot tries to waver into Memento or Traffic territory by weaving all the characters' stories together on Christmas Eve in L.A.

And how can the acting be bad anyway? Forest Whitaker (whose 2006 portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland was one for the ages), Patrick Swayze (in a small role as a sleazy strip-club owner), and Eddie Redmayne (who, as a former fashion model, surprisingly often stars in Victorian period pieces) are strong.

While they turn in good performances with little material (some better backstories would have filled in the boring stretches), Jessica Biel provides the heat (with several stripping scenes, including one in which she splashes herself repeatedly with hot wax) but fails to convince anyone that she has acting chops. Nevertheless, we're sure to hear more from the ex-7th Heaven-star-turned-bad-girl (remind you of someone from Saved by the Bell/Showgirls?). Along with her regular appearances on Perez Hilton and other gossip sites, Biel is rumored to be making an album with help from her boyfriend Justin Timberlake. Oh boy.

** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Mad Men Yourself

In honor of Mad Men's third season thankfully kicking off on August 16, I built myself into a character from the show with the help of AMC's Web site.

I'm the dandy with the blue suit and the coffee. Rachel says I made myself "too toothy," but I like the rest of my 1960 style.

Make yourself. And more importantly, watch this show.

Mad Men and Lost are the best dramas ever shown on TV.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

King Dork Tries to Live Up to Holden Caulfield's Standard

Fresh off reading Larry Doyle's excellent I Love You, Beth Cooper, I was ready to delve deeper into more infantile high-school humor. Looks like Mr. T Experience punk rocker Frank Portman has the antidote I need in King Dork. I started the book and here's what happens early on:

Tom "Chi-Mo" Henderson and his only friend, Sam Hellerman (who "has a taste for prescription tranquilizers"), go to Hillmont High School. They're in a band that has a name (Baby Batter), a logo, and "the basic design for the first three or four album covers."

Despite not putting any effort into his schoolwork, Tom finds out on the first day of school that he'll be in two AP classes. The only bonus of getting into AP classes, as Tom sees it, is that the teachers are generally "younger, more enthusiastic, easy to manipulate, and in pre-meltdown mode. The regular classes, on the other hand, are usually taught by elderly, bitter robots who gave up long ago and who are just biding their time praying for it all to be over." The AP teachers are part of the "Catcher in the Rye Cult," which means they're judging every student against the standard of Caulfield.

I'm going to get back to this when I need a quick, breezy laugh. I'll let you know how that goes.

Wilco, America's Melodic Rock Kings, Hit the Road

Fugazi's Brendan Canty directed this great-sounding documentary following Wilco on the road in 2008. (My six degrees on this is that my old roommate Nikos used to make rock videos with Canty, not to mention I grew up about 20 miles from where Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy grew up.)

As I've said here before, there is no band currently that is making such consistently melodic and rocking records, putting on better shows, or being more adventuresome musically. The intimate camera work reveals the moods of each band member both while playing full songs at five different venues and while interviewing them individually.

The set list was recorded at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 Club, Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, Mobile's Mobile Civic Center, New Orleans' Tipitina's, and Tulsa's Cain's Ballroom.
  1. "Ashes of American Flags"
  2. "Side with the Seeds"
  3. "Handshake Drugs"
  4. "The Late Greats"
  5. "Kingpin"
  6. "Wishful Thinking"
  7. "Impossible Germany"
  8. "Via Chicago"
  9. "A Shot in the Arm"
  10. "Monday"
  11. "You Are My Face"
  12. "Heavy Metal Drummer"
  13. "War on War"
**** out of ***** stars

Saturday, July 18, 2009

The Sprogs Set to Relaunch as Kid/Adult Band

Paula, you said last night you wanted a song about books that works for both kids and adults. Well here you go. It's called "Books About Monsters" and lasts a little less than two minutes. Hope you like it!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Dirty Harry for the Lifetime Channel

What will we do if Clint Eastwood ever stops acting? For one, nobody else could have ever played the racist and surly Korean War vet Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino. They just wouldn't be scary enough.

Although I often forget about his talent these days (he hadn't acted in anything since 2004's Million Dollar Baby until this 2008 movie), Eastwood was my favorite actor when I was a kid. And he basically revises his Dirty Harry character here. Only this time, instead of blowing away crooks in San Francisco, he's citizen-patrolling the deserted mean streets of Detroit. The genius thing about this movie is that you don't have to be a fan of action-oriented Dirty Harry movies. This is Dirty Harry for your grandmother.

I imagine there must be real people like Kowalski in the world (and they're probably mostly retired from the Ford plant in Detroit!), but I sure wouldn't want to meet them in any dark alleys.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Vol. 6

Dinosaur Jr.-Farm (2009)
Green Mind-y riffs.
****1/2 out of ***** stars
Touchstone: There's only one Dinosaur Jr.

George Harrison-George Harrison (1979)
Classic Harrison returns.
****1/2 out of ***** stars
Touchstone: The Beatles meet jangle-pop easy listening

God Help the Girl-God Help the Girl (2009)
Wimpy, freaky beatniksterisms.
**** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Bell and Sebastian meets early '60s cinema soundtracks

The Church-Forget Yourself (2004)
Mediocre trippy wave.
**1/2 out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Great Church meets really bad Madchester

Crooked Fingers-Forfeit/Fortune (2008)
Unpredictable, dirty, driving.
**** out of ***** stars
Touchstone: Archers of Loaf meets Bruce Springsteen

Death Cab for Cutie-The Open Door EP (2009)
Quality's losing steam.
*** out of *** stars
Touchstone: The Decemberists meets generic emo

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Almost Never Happened

LinkThis is the seventh installment in a series about a book I'm reading called Stories Done, which is a great collection of tales of excess from counter-culture leaders.

The Beatles came far closer to disbanding after their final 1966 tour than was generally known. George Harrison saw the group's massive popularity as a weight and a danger. He told manager Brian Epstein that he was quitting and left for a five-week sitar retreat in India with his wife. John Lennon was feeling adrift during this time and dropped to his knees to pray for God to tell him what he should be doing with his life.

Paul McCartney, however, kept working and was enamored of the long, fanciful names gracing several American psychedelic bands such as Big Brother and the Holding Company and the West Coast Pop Art Experimental Band. McCartney wrote Sgt. Pepper's title track and presented it, and his make-believe scenario for the album, to a skeptical Harrison and Lennon.

In later years, all the Beatles but McCartney would distance themselves from Sgt Pepper's in some way or another. Much of their disgust stemmed from the way McCartney governed the band during this time (although, to Paul's credit, if he wouldn't have governed, the Beatles almost surely would have dissolved before much of their best work was released). But also, Harrison and Ringo Starr felt underused during the sessions (despite none of the other Beatles playing on Harrison's track "Within You Without You") and Lennon was, frankly, a little gone on LSD.

Whatever the individual Beatles thought, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is an almost-untouchable album. While Revolver and The White Album usually float to the top of my personal list, a recent listen confirmed for me that this is an album with nothing but 5-star songs (much like, surprisingly, Magical Mystery Tour). And I'm far from alone in thinking this: Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys pulled over his car onto the side of the road and cried when he first heard Sgt. Pepper's. He didn't finish his own epic, Smile, for 37 years because he was so upset that the Beatles had beat him to the perfect album.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Wilco Live: A Gushing Fanboy Angle on the Show

I defy you to prove to me that there is a better band today than Wilco. I also think you can't find a better guitarist than Nels Cline, whose ripping and dorky moves supplied much of the drama in Wednesday night's unbeatable show at Wolf Trap in Virginia.

That should not short change the rest of the band. They are all great musicians with cool and emotional styles, especially drummer Glen Kotche. Leader Jeff Tweedy has gotten better and better since his early days as Jay Farrar's stomping map in Uncle Tupelo (from Belleville, Illinois, about 15 miles south of my hometown of Edwardsville). He is seriously and sneakily approaching the overall quantity of "number one" songs supplied to us courtesy of Lennon and McCartney. (At least in a Casey Kasem alternative universe.)

There were many highlights but I'd have to say my favorites were the long, proggy versions of "Impossible Germany" and "Kidsmoke," the late-era Beatles-ish "Hate It Here," and pop gems "Misunderstood " and "Heavy Metal Drummer" (about Tower Lake Apartments in Edwardsville and The Landing in St. Louis). "You and I" and "You Never Know" from the new album are also already-classics.

Full set list: Wilco (the song)/Shot in the Arm/At Least That's What You Said/Bull Black NovaYou Are My Face/I'm Trying to Break Your Heart/One Wing/How To Fight Loneliness/Impossible Germany/Deeper Down/Jesus Etc./Sonny Feeling/Handshake Drugs/Hate It Here/Walken/I'm the Man Who Loves You/Hummingbird/ E: You Never Know/Heavy Metal Drummer/Misunderstood/Spiders(Kidsmoke)/I'm a Wheel

The extra treat of seeing Conor Oberst play a "greatest hits" set just added to the beautiful July night. The only bad part was that the lawn was so full that we couldn't see the stage. So we ate and partied through that set before I scored a ticket into the Exxon box, front-and-center in the first row of the balcony. Don't ask how a greenie like myself scores a spot in the Belly of the Beast, but, put it this way, I won't say anything bad about Exxon ... for at least a week or so.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Raymond Chandler's Throwback L.A. Noir

Maybe this post won't be of interest to too many people. After all, I recently walked into the Montgomery County library bookstore in Rockville and asked a 90-year-old worker if they had a copy of Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep and she replied, "That's a little old-fashioned, isn't it?"

Anyway, I read the start of the classic noir novel on my Kindle and can't wait to get back to finishing it. It begins like this:

"It was about eleven o'clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills." The narrator is detective Philip Marlowe, who is 33, was fired from the district attorney's office, and is a self-described "insubordinate." He's making a house call at the "Sternwood place" for a 4-million-dollar job. Upon arriving, he encounters a flirtatious girl, Carmen Sternwood, who falls back into his arms and calls him "cute" (she calls herself cute too). 

Next, the butler calls Marlowe in to meet with an old man, General Sternwood, who is paralyzed from the waist down. He is a widower with two young "pretty and wild" daughters named Vivian and, of course, Carmen. She was married three times, the last time to a bootlegger named Rusty Regan, who disappeared without a word about a month previously. After describing his daughters' privileged upbringings, the old man notes that "if I sound sinister as a parent, it is because my hold on life is too slight to include any Victorian hypocrisy. I need not add that a man who indulges in parenthood for the first time at the age of fifty-four deserves all he gets."

But the business at hand is that the old man wants to tell Marlowe about how he's being blackmailed. They begin to put a plan into place ...

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Leonardo DiCaprio's 13 Best Movies

Leonardo DiCaprio, it turns out upon reflection, has been in a pretty impressive batch of movies. Nobody is better at playing the white-collar, self-made-man of the 1950s and '60s. He's come a long way from Roseanne and Growing Pains and is even set to play Teddy Roosevelt.

My favorite DiCaprio movies are:

13. The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)
12. The Aviator (2004)
11. Romeo + Juliet (1996)
10. Revolutionary Road (2008)
09. What's Eating Gilbert Grape (1993)
08. This Boy's Life (1993)
07. The Basketball Diaries (1995)
06. Titanic (1997)
05. Celebrity (1998)
04. Catch Me If You Can (2002)
03. The Departed (2006)
02. The Beach (2000)
01. Blood Diamond (2006)

Revolutionary Road Soaks Its Sorrows in Martinis

Sam Mendes is pretty hit-or-miss as a director. American Beauty is one of the great dramas. The rest of his work was not so great (although I am looking forward to seeing Away We Go one of these days).

Revolutionary Road is not uplifting by any means. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet reunite for the first time since their epic affair in Titanic to display some seriously extreme ups and downs of love. The movie is all about the fine line between bohemian dreams and life-sucking suburban existence. Both actors turn in typically excellent performances, and there are some nice American Beauty-like twists. But the story, in attempting to build suspense, drags occasionally.

If you have limited time for pop culture that reflects upon the martini-and-cigarette soaked mid-20th century, watch Mad Men instead.

*** out of ***** stars