Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Academy Award Nominations

Brokeback Mountain (see below) and George Clooney (see above) lead the pack in the race as the nominations for the 78th Academy Awards are announced and the chase for the precious Oscars is officially joined. Brokeback scored 8 nominations…including Best Picture…while Clooney got 3 nods all by himself (Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck as well as Best Supporting Actor for Syriana.)

Along with Brokeback Mountain, the other Best Picture nominees are Capote, Crash, Good Night, and Good Luck, and Munich. The directors of those movies…Ang Lee, Bennett Miller, Paul Haggis, Clooney, and Steven Spielberg…are vying for the Best Director prize.

Capote’s Philip Seymour Hoffman (see above) is probably the favorite in the Best Actor race for his portrayal of the titular writer. The other Nominees include Terence Howard (Hustle & Flow), Heath Ledger (Brokeback Mountain), Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line), and David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck).

Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line) and Felicity Huffman (Transamerica - see below) are the likely frontrunners for the Best Actress prize. Dame Judi Dench (Mrs. Henderson Presents), Keira Knightley (Pride and Prejudice), and (having survived the bomb that was Aeon Flux) Charlize Theron (North Country) will likely have to settle for being happy to have just been nominated.

The year’s biggest moneymaker, Star Wars: Episode 3-Revenge of the Sith, got just one nomination (for Best Makeup). It was shut out of the Best Visual Effects race by King Kong, The Chronicles of Narnia, and War of the Worlds.

Peter Jackson’s King Kong had to settle for a handful of technical nominations (Art Direction, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects) after being shut out of the major categories.

And for some reason there were only 3 (instead of the usual 5) Best Song nominations this year: “In the Deep” (from Crash), “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” (from Hustle and Flow), and Dolly Parton’s “Travelin’ Thru” (from Transamerica).

The Oscars will go to the winners on March 5th.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Dancing with the Stars 2006

The first edition of Dancing with the Stars was a guilty pleasure of sorts…engaging enough as these “reality” show things go…but after the suspect awarding of the championship at the end of the series I wasn’t sure if I would bother with the new edition.

But I decided to give it a chance and, thus far, it’s a harmlessly entertaining way to spend an hour or so on Thursday nights. The same hypercritical (they don’t seem to understand that they are watching novices who have had a week to learn a routine and not seasoned professional dancers who will hit every move with perfection), pompous judges are back …but this year their votes are only half on the competitors’ scores (the public gets to vote to make the other half of the score.) The unctuous Tom Bergeron is back as co-host (with a different giggly co-host whose name escapes me.)

But then there are the dancers. The celebrities are mostly from the C-list again (though future Pro Football Hall of Fame member Jerry Rice and Academy Award winner Tatum O’Neal…yeah she won it when she was 12 but she won it just the same…lift the caliber of the group a bit) but they are, for the most part, quite game.

The most pleasant surprise is the incredibly graceful Stacy Keibler (above with her professional dance partner Dovolani.) Keibler is a professional wrestler (the 2004 “WWE Babe of the Year” who is, quite aptly, nicknamed “the Legs of the WWE”) and she is a wonder to behold.

Rice, Drew Lachey (late of the “boy band” 98 Degrees and brother of Jessica Simpson’s soon-to-be ex-husband, Nick…who has attended the shows to cheer his bro on), and TV reporter Giselle Fernandez are also among those who have worked hard not to embarrass themselves during the dancing.

And then there’s Master P (below with his professional dance partner Ashly DelGrosso.)

Rapper/Athlete (he played semi-pro Basketball last year)/Businessman P (for Percy) Miller gets props for stepping into the breach when his son, rapper/actor Romeo, got hurt and had to drop out. That gets him points as a good Dad but as a ballroom dancer…? Well, he’s a good Dad…

(I guess there must be some kind of campaign among the phone voters to keep P in the competition because his lead-footed performances and headstrong behavior certainly haven’t merited him making the cut during the first two weeks of the show.)

Dancing with the Stars was such a hit for ABC last summer that it has spawned its own Fox-TV rip off, Skating with Celebrities, which debuts this week. I guess these things are good for keeping C (and D list “stars” out of rehab and away from other unsavory ways of trying to get back into the spotlight if for nothing else.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Book of Daniel

Daniel Webster (and yes, he’s supposed to be descended from his historic namesake) is an Episcopal Priest living in a large house in an affluent neighborhood. But his life...as portrayed by Aidan Quinn (above)...is anything but serene.

Over the course of the 2-hour series debut we find that: Daniel seems to be addicted to pain pills (he pops Vicodin like breath mints), his wife seems to be an alcoholic, his daughter sells marijuana to finance her fledgling career as a comic book artist, his adopted Chinese son is bedding the 16-year-old daughter of one of his more conservative parishioners (whose shrewish wife unabashedly disdains the possibility of having “Asian grandchildren” running around her Christmas tree), his mother is plagued with Alzheimer’s, his father (a Bishop) is a sour, self-righteous prig who is having an extramarital affair with Daniel’s direct superior, a prickly female Bishop (who herself is now taking part in Daniel’s Vicodin popping), his wife’s sister is a high-strung flake who’s having an affair with the woman her husband brought in to spice up their sex life, his brother-in-law (husband of his wife’s sister) absconded with millions of the church’s funds (Daniel had put him in charge of building a school for the Church) and ended up dead (with the money nowhere in sight), and the most level-headed (well, relatively speaking) person in his family is his gay son (who is teased, constantly and unmercifully, by his siblings about his sexuality and who so afraid of coming out to his grandfather that he allows himself to forced into a date with a woman arranged the old man.)

On top of all that, Daniel contacts a Catholic Priest…an Italian-American who, as a matter of course for this series, has direct ties to the Mafia…to help him track down the brother-in-law and the missing money and finds that the church money will be returned only if he hires a mob-connected construction company to build the school.

And, if all that weren’t enough, Daniel has regular conversations with Jesus Christ, who is portrayed as a bland guy with a surfer dude attitude and more vapid platitudes than actual wisdom and comfort.

I’m not sure what The Book of Daniel is trying to be (I’m guessing that it wants to be a hip, “edgy” cross between Desperate Housewives and Joan of Arcadia)…but what it turns out to be is a mess. It’s not funny (the early promos for it positioned it as being much more light-hearted than it turned out to be)…it’s certainly not as whimsical as it thinks it is…it has no characters that you really care about…and the sheer accumulation of over-the-top plotlines is just plain numbing.

(I’m not Episcopalian and I don’t think I know any Episcopalians personally but I have to imagine that this show is insulting to them on myriad levels.)

The Book of Daniel is a limited series and I can’t imagine it being picked up to continue after the 8 episodes scheduled for this run (at this point…given the furor, the lack of sponsors (most the ads during the 2 hours were promos for other NBC programs), and the so-so ratings…I’d imagine there’s only a 50-50 chance that NBC is going to finish airing even these episodes; they're likely to shunt the show over to Bravo or one of the other cable outlets in the NBC- Universal family.)

Monday, January 02, 2006

The 2005 Twenty (Part 2)

The Twenty are my 20 favorite reasons to have owned a CD player in 2005. They are listed in alphabetical order (by artist).

The second half of the 2005 Twenty (the first half was presented in the previous post below):

Los Super Seven – Heard it on the X

The very tasty third album by the loose collective known as Los Super Seven, celebrates Border Radio in all of its glory, invoking the living spirits of Doug Sahm (represented here with two cuts), Buddy Holly, and all of other great musicians who ever had their joyful noises beamed unabashedly from Baja California to the wide, welcoming world. Anchored by a crack band of players (and despite the name of the group, there are indeed more than 7 musicians involved), an array of lead singers take their turns at the mike.

Shelby Lynne – Suit Yourself

Stripping away excess production and musical embellishment, Ms. Lynne finds her homespun soul in this spare, relaxed set of songs. From the mournful stroll of “I Cry Everyday” to the graceful ode “When Johnny Met June” to the sprightly kiss off “You Don’t Have the Heart” to the simmering, bluesy take on the classic “Rainy Night in Georgia”, Lynne (who wrote all but two of the songs) and a crack set of players…including Benmont Tench and Tony Joe White (who wrote the other two songs)…offer up tart, unadorned, great music.

Van Morrison – Magic Time

Magic Time touches on most of Morrison’s favorite latter day touchstones: the majesty of the blues, love (the beautiful “Celtic New Year”, the rocking “Evening Train”), odes to self-reliance and solitude (the earnest “Keep Mediocrity at Bay”, the wistful “Gypsy in my Soul”, the delightfully tongue-in-cheek “Just Like Greta”, the title song’s enchanting “stop and smell the roses” plea), and acerbic jibes against the invasiveness of fame (the world-weary “The Lion This Time”, the rueful “They Sold Me Out”.) But these familiar themes are no less engaging since the disc finds Van in fine, feisty voice backed by an ace band that knows how to swing, how to soothe, how to work contours of the music as each song needs (Morrison contributes wailing harmonica and subtle guitar playing to several cuts as well as some lovely alto sax work on the opening “Stranded”.)

New Pornographers – Twin Cinema

Anchored by singer/songwriter/guitarist A.C. Newman and the luminous Neko Case, the Pornographers deliver another sterling set of pop/rock gems ably abetted by newcomers Kathryn Calder and Nora O’Connor.

Bruce Springsteen – Devils and Dust

This collection is filled with atmospheric, insightful stories mostly told in a burnished, heartfelt twang that suits these fine songs to a tee. It’s a quiet…not as stark as Nebraska or The Ghost of Tom Joad, but much gentler than most of his work with the mighty E Street Band…haunting record indeed.

Sufjan Stevens – Illinois

The second disc (following Michigan) in Stevens’ ambitious 50 States project is all about the “Land of Lincoln”. It’s filled with clever, engaging…sometime ornate and baroque, sometimes spare and simple…pop that soars gloriously.

Kanye West – Late Registration

I guess it ain’t bragging if you can do it. Egocentric Bush-basher West delivers the goods with great hooks, nimble…unapologetic, clear-eyed, sometimes caustically funny, sometimes profane, sometimes bitterly sad…rhymes, judiciously chosen samples (Shirley Bassey, Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Natalie Cole, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron) and guest stars (including Common, Jay-Z, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, Brandy, Nas, and of course, as anybody who listened the radio this year knew, Jamie Foxx.) It’s too late to hope for moratorium on “skits” on hip hop CDs so I won’t bother to ask for one here.

White Stripes – Get Behind Me Satan

There are more piano and marimbas and fewer guitar solos and yet it’s still the Whites rocking hard (and slowing it down for delicate ballads when they want and need to.) One spin of the throbbing “My Doorbell” or the crunchy “Blue Orchid” is all it takes to dispel any notion that Jack and Meg might have gone soft.

Neil Young – Prairie Wind

This is the quiet Neil…as opposed to the rocking grunge Neil who turns the amps up to 11 with Crazy Horse…putting his fragile but compelling voice and his introspective lyrics into a sonic tapestry anchored by guitars (slide, acoustic, and steel), harmonicas, and sweet harmonies. Prairie Wind is a soothing, contemplative delight of a record, of a piece with other “quiet Neil” gems like Harvest, Comes a Time, and Harvest Moon.

Zucchero – Zucchero & Company

The Italian pop/R&B star shares the mike with a host of his influences and admirers…John Lee Hooker, Macy Gray, Jeff Beck, Sting, B.B. King, Miles Davis, Delores O’Riordan, Solomon Burke, Luciano Pavarotti, Andrea Bocelli, Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, Cheb Mami, Paul Young, Mana, Vanessa Carlton…for a shimmering set of soulful duets recorded over the years 1988-2003.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

The 2005 Twenty (Part 1)

The Twenty are my 20 favorite reasons to have owned a CD player in 2005. There were a fair amount of good records released during the year but these are the ones that tickled my fancy most. They are listed in alphabetical order (by artist) because I realized that trying to rank them was an apples and oranges thing.

The first half of the 2005 Twenty:

Fiona Apple – Extraordinary Machine

The mercurial Ms. Apple resurfaces with a grand collection of baroque pop, contemplative confessions, and intriguing, clever wordplay. The music is at turns playful, delicately sparse, and (quite effectively) dense and Apple is in fine, earnest, affecting voice. Extraordinary indeed.

Beck - Guero

With an intoxicating blend of potent pop hooks, funky rock ‘n’roll and hip hop beats, tasty world music and electronica touches, cool vocal arrangements, and funny/touching/insightful/willfully oblique lyrics Beck and producers The Dust Brothers recall the feel of their classic Odelay collection without merely repeating themselves.

Big Star – In Space

Okay, this is not on a par with #1 Record or Radio City…but then not much pop music is (and those original Big Star records are 30 years old…they should have been massive hits but they weren’t…hopefully they’re being rediscovered by more and more people every year)…but so what? This is a mighty fine power pop collection with two original members of Big Star (including Alex Chilton, an underappreciated pop music genius) and two members of the Posies delivering 12 shimmering, infectious, catchy pop tunes (including the sweetly wistful “Turn My Back on the Sun” and the playfully funky “Love Revolution”, the best dance song that Gamble & Huff never wrote.)

Mary J. Blige – The Breakthrough

Aretha is, now and ever, the Queen of Soul but, that said, it’s been a long while she put out an album with as potent a mixture of heartache, passion, longing, and self-affirmation as this one. The astonishing Mary J. breaks through with grand songs, great beats, and, most important of all, her amazing gospel-infected voice. (Another plus is that the guest-stars aren’t allowed to take over the show…and that includes U2, who team up with Ms. Blige for a soaring cover of “One”.)

Bright Eyes – I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning

This collection is ragged, heartfelt, wryly poetic, insanely catchy and utterly engaging...from the wistful opening of "At the Bottom of Everything" to the controlled cacophony of the coda to the closing rocker "Road to Joy". (It gets extra points for bringing in the peerless Emmylou Harris to sing harmony on three cuts.)

Common – Be

Mostly produced by Kanye West, this terrific CD focuses on tight mid-tempo beats and funky hooks (along with judiciously chosen samples) that keeps the attention on Common's smooth flow and his vibrant raps about love, faith, respect, and empowerment.

Ry Cooder – Chavez Ravine

On this dazzling, bittersweet, compelling new CD, Ry Cooder chronicles the tale of the co-opting a thriving Los Angeles Mexican-American community to make way for Dodger Stadium with the help of an enormously talented assemblage of like-minded friends and comrades. Cooder has always followed his muse wherever it took him...pop music, soul music, "world" music, movie music, whatever appealed to him he immersed himself in it with exuberance and reverence.

Shemekia Copeland – The Soul Truth

The blues are all right...especially when they're storming so passionately...so sensually...so powerfully...from the body and soul of Ms. Shemekia Copeland. There are a couple of awkward lyrical patches here and there but those are easily forgiven and quickly forgotten when you're being totally engaged by real heartfelt blues...by real honest-to-Aretha soul music.

Cowboy Junkies – Early 21st Century Blues

A remarkable collection of songs...two originals by ace guitarist Michael Timmins (the evocative "December Skies" and the wistfully bittersweet "This World Dreams Of"), two traditional folk songs arranged by the band (the oft-covered "Two Soldiers" and the anti-slavery song "No More"), and seven shrewdly chosen covers...that comment on the state of our world in a still new century.

Bettye LaVette – I’ve Got My Own Hell to Raise

A soul survivor turns 10 songs written by women…Fiona Apple, Dolly Parton, Lucinda Williams, Sinead O’Connor, Aimee Mann, others…into searing, pure rhythm & blues magic; from the raw, undeniable a cappella opener of O’Connor’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” to the closing affirmation of Apple’s “Sleep to Dream”, it’s a wonder.

(The second half of the Twenty will be presented in the next post)