Saturday, October 15, 2011

What I’m Checking Out This Month (August & September 2011):

Here are the various entertainment things I’m listening to, watching or reading this month.


None: I didn’t feed my brain this month.  Or rather, I didn’t finish any books this month- I’m in the middle of three of them.


Berlin (Opening for INXS): I was kind of interested in seeing INXS, because I needed to up the number of concerts I see this year after last year’s pitiful total of one concert (Hole/Courtney Love).  Then when I heard the opening act would be Berlin, I got pretty excited.  Terri Nunn, and whomever she brings in to be the rest of Berlin (no original or even heyday members remain in the group), always deliver a great set.  Berlin always seems to be the opening act, so that means I get to hear all the hits and often just the hits.  That’s nice since I get to hear a lot of my favourites, but occasionally I would like to hear some deeper cuts like Will I Ever Understand You, Like Flames or Blowing Sky High or Stronger Than Steel.  For this show, it was just the hits, with a cover of Somebody To Love thrown in along with one new song-in-progress called Break the Chains.  Terri Nunn still sounds as great as always although she wasn’t as energetic as in the past.  (Is she pregnant?  Getting older?  Hungover?) 

I don’t know why some big name artist hasn’t roped her into working with them because she can really wail.  Fergie gets all the props these days for her “rock & roll voice” but Nunn has been bringing it for two decades.  After Berlin, INXS put on a good show too- played all the hits, some lesser cuts, a couple of revamped versions of hits, and just for good measure played the revamped songs again in the normal versions as the encore.  No wonder I couldn’t guess what they’d do for the encore- they had already done a version of Don’t Change, their concert finale staple, earlier.  I was not as taken with J.D. Fortune this time around- his singing was a little too “bellowy” for me but it didn’t greatly hurt the show because the focus was on the whole band, not just the singer.  (As exemplified by the opening where the three Farris brothers were alone on stage playing drums.)


I can’t believe that in the span of the last two months, I’ve only seen three movies in the theatre.  I’ve watched some on DVD, like Soul Surfer which I watched with my sister and brother-in-law while in Colorado.  I had avoided it in theatres despite the fact it had a shark in it because it just looked too earnest and uplifting for me.  It’s that story of the 13-year old surfer girl in Hawaii who had her arm bitten off by a shark and instead of giving up, she triumphantly returns to surfing and becomes a spiritual icon.  I also watched some things on cable, when I randomly stopped on something while channel hopping (which explains how I let myself get sucked into watching The Time Traveler’s Wife.  It was as hokey and maudlin as I imagined, despite featuring the delectable Rachel McAdams.)  I think it says more about the quality of the movies that opened in August and September- and my lack of sleep- than it does about my interest in seeing things because I do drag my tired carcass to things I’m really interested in.  For instance, I saw:

Crazy, Stupid Love: because it got great reviews as a drama-edy but more importantly it has Marisa Tomei!  Steve Carell gets cheated on and then dumped by his wife, Julianne Moore, so he has to start dating again even though he is inept at it.  (Sounds like me, doesn’t it?  Why does Steve Carell always do roles that could be about me?)  Ryan Gosling is the local stud who teaches how to score chicks and Marisa Tomei is the first conquest.  Since she is such a catch, in real life and in this movie, she doesn’t take kindly to a “wham bam thank you ma’am” and eventually goes bonkers on him, to hilarious effect.  Lessons are learned along the way by all the characters but it is still a pretty funny movie despite learning stuff.

Midnight In Paris: This is a Woody Allen movie.  You will probably have a reaction based just on that statement, which is fair but it also means you haven’t been paying attention to his movies recently.  First of all, Woody Allen doesn’t appear in the movie, it isn’t set in New York (Care to guess where it does take place?) and the subject matter could be anything (Match Point was a murder mystery, Cassandra’s Dream was about two brother’s financial woes, Scoop was about journalism and Vickie Christina Barcelona was about…threesomes?)  This time it is a typical theme though.  Owen Wilson plays a screenplay writer who is stuck in a rut and unable to finish his first book.  His wife, the ever lovely Rachel McAdams, is his polar opposite wife.  Whereas Wilson loves the romantic notion of walking around Paris in the rain, his wife would prefer to hop in the limo so she doesn’t get wet. 

After a talking a walk to clear his head, he somehow ends up in Paris in the Roaring Twenties and swap stories with Hemingway and Fitzgerald.  This happens to him every night, except the time he tried to bring along the wife.  This time traveling (delusion?), creates a whole new set of opportunities, and problems.  I really enjoyed this movie.  It had some clever jokes and asked interesting questions.  Plus it was fun to discuss afterwards.  The person I saw it with said that it was refreshing because her workday involves talking to people who have no knowledge of things like literature, art, movies, theatre, music or television.  (She works with nuns, yes, but apparently they lack any interest in these things even though they aren’t forbidden from engaging in them.)   I’m not sure I could handle talking to people and not being able to reference any of those topics.  This movie was one of Woody Allen’s recent better movies and can be counted as a modest success creatively.  Financially though, it is one of his most lucrative movies ever.  Definitely worth checking out.

Moneyball: I saw this because it was written by Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Sports Night, The West Wing).  I enjoy his style and baseball is usually a good subject for entertaining stories.  Oddly enough though, this film was a bit flat.  There weren’t enough baseball playing scenes and the various characters’ interactions didn’t pop enough.  The Social Network was more lively and engaging even though its subject matter was much less compelling on the surface.  (Computer coding and venture capital meetings versus baseball!  Shouldn’t even be a contest.)  The storyline revolves around the A’s trying to remain a contender the next season after losing players like emerging superstars Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi.  Jonah Hill proposes a radical new way to put together a team, using a system that flies in the face of conventional baseball wisdom.  Brad Pitt did a good job as the harried general manager of the Oakland A’s and Jonah Hill is surprisingly respectable in a mostly straight role.  The performances are what carry the movie, which is surprising considering the talent of the writer.  Don’t get me wrong- it’s a good movie.  It’s just not a great one and it should have been.


Melissa Auf Der Maur- Out Of Our Minds: a female version of Joe Satriani.  She writes songs to show off her guitar playing skills, mixes in some mystical lyrics and has a theme for the album.  I’d gotten her first album and enjoyed it and this one was more of the same.  I found two songs I really liked but the rest was ho-hum.  I expected more from the former guitarist for Hole.

Antonia Bennett- Love Is A Battlefield (Single): Tony Bennett’s daughter covers a Holly Knight written song (or- as you all know it- a Pat Benatar performed song.) It’s okay but I’m really looking forward to the full length album that Holly Knight is producing and writing for her.  I need more Holly Knight songs to exist.  I’ve heard most of the ones already out there.

Class Actress- Journal Of Ardency: I read a review of this band that made them sound pretty intriguing so I bought an EP of theirs.  It didn’t knock me out although one day they might start writing better, catchier songs and get more exposure, like Cut Copy has done.  Right now, Class Actress are doing mid-tempo, contemplative dream-rock. It sounds sort of like the slower songs on a Silversun Pickups album.   I didn’t hate it but there wasn’t anything that made me want to hit rewind.

Cage The Elephant- Thank You Happy Birthday:  If you miss the Pixies, like I do, then get this album.  Cage The Elephant captures the essence of the Pixies sound and aesthetic quite well.  Cage’s songs are not quite as epic but since there is no more Pixies to be had, this is a worthwhile substitute.

The Crash- Melodrama: I heard a song from this band on someone’s iPod while I was playing poker at their house and loved it.  It may have been the alcohol or the lack of sleep since it was 2 AM at the time but the song “Gigolo” just hit me the right way.  It sounded a bit like Catatonia when they’ve had their caffeine.    I ended up getting the album on a whim and it turns out they are a Scandinavian band, which explains a lot about why they sound like a heavier version of Roxette.  The song I’d heard was by far the best one on the so-so album so there won’t be any need to look for any others. 

Foster The People- Torches: This is an indie pop band that I mentioned last year when discussing how much their hit “Pumped Up Kicks” sounded like Peter, Bjorn And John’s “Young Folks”.  Little did I realize that their album had several other less derivative but equally enjoyable songs on it.  In fact, my favorite song of theirs is “Warrant”, because of its’ bright, shiny harmonies and energetic thumping sound.  This is a cheerful, catchy collection of songs.  Perfect music for setting the mood for the day while driving into work.

Human League- Credo:  It sounds like classic Human League, minus the hit singles.  Not worth the import price.  I was kind of disappointed because they’ve done some decent post-heyday albums.

Keane- Night Train: Keane is a frustrating band.  I liked several songs from their first album (Hopes And Fears), especially Everybody’s Changing and Somewhere Only We Know.  They were mid-tempo songs in the vein of Coldplay, without being so whiny.  The second album (Under The Iron Sea) blew me away.  It was clear, crisp, chiming collection of songs that contained a wonderful mix of moods and tones, with charming but sad lyrics.  Listening to it was like living inside Edge’s solo on U2’s In The Name Of Love.  I repeatedly played over half the songs on the CD and then had to wait forever, it seemed like, for their third album.  The lead-off single from that (Spiraling) was terrific, and seemed to continue the spirit of the album from two years ago.  When I heard the whole thing though, it turns out to be a radical departure from that.  It was more of a synth pop album but only a mediocre one at that.  I hardly liked any of the songs and that was very depressing considering how long I’d waited and the expectations that had built up.  

I got their fourth album (Night Train) which came out two years later, although it seemed to arrive suddenly since I wasn’t impatiently waiting for it.  Another album, another radical departure.  This time they mixed up the moody rock vibe of the second album with the jaunty pop leanings of the third with a touch of Santana’s Supernatural concept of guest performers.  I don’t really need a rap interlude on my British mope rock.  U2 ruined things for a lot of bands.  The other bands feel like they also have to make radical sonic departures to stay legit as an artist.  This doesn’t work too well unless you are as talented as U2 and few groups are.  As a whole though, it was better than the third album so now I am wondering how I will react to their fifth album. 

John Legend & The Roots- Wake Up!:  John Legend and The Roots team up to cover some classic, and some obscure, R&B songs.  Most of them I didn’t know so I approached this like a John Legend album.  As such, it is his third best one but it is worth a listen.  It is smooth, enjoyable and has a good message.  The title track is the centerpiece of the album and concept and not surprisingly, one of the most successful tracks.  This was worth the $5 I paid for the download.

Metric- Old World Underground:  Still waiting for Metric to make a great album.  Two good songs don’t cut it.  I don’t care how attractive the lead singer is- I’m listening to her, not looking at her.  To be fair, this is an earlier album and is actually better than their latest and most successful album but they need to really bring it on their upcoming one or I will write them off as a fluke who had one great song.  (“Black Sheep” on the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack.)

The Muppets- The Green Album:  Very disappointed in this Muppets cover album.  The lineup of bands wasn’t that strong and the songs weren’t done justice.  How can a self-respecting band let a Muppets band out-do them?  The only one who succeeds here is Weezer with Hayley Williams.  They take the spirit of the original song (“Rainbow Connection”) and make it work to their strengths- edge, sincerity and harmony.  Hmm- looking over this month, I’ve listened to a lot of cover stuff and the ratio of success has not been on the positive side.  What’s going on?  Have bands forgotten how to perform and just think they can coast on irony or lackadaisical effort?

She & Him- Lotta Love: I love this two-some, singer/songwriter Zooey DesChanel and producer/multi-instrumentalist/everything else M. Ward.  I love the Neal Young song “Lotta Love”, especially the poignant, full of longing version done by Nicolette Larson back in the late 1970’s.  So when I heard this band did a cover of this song, I tracked it down (and boy was that hard because it’s not commercial available for sale.)  I’m not particularly overwhelmed by this version though and I just figured out why.  There are not enough lyrics.  I know that is shocking coming from me, a guy who only sporadically pays attention to the words in a song, but there are only two parts to the song and then lots and lots of repetition of the chorus.  Larson’s voice was so plaintive and desperate though that you could listen to the chorus over and over again while wishing you could sooth her aching heart. 

This version though is catchy enough and true to the original Neil Young version (which also suffers by comparison) that you can’t fault it, but if anyone else ever decides to cover the song, they only have two options for doing it successfully- be one of the world’s best singers and emulate Nicolette Larson’s take or write new lyrics so the focus is on the words and the music and not just the vocals.  I would love to see Juliana Hatfield write a couple of new verses, strap on her electric guitar, and sing the song sweetly and longingly, counterbalanced by her fuzzed-out guitar work. Can I commission her to do this and do it the way I want, or do artists have some silly rules about doing it “their way”?  Still, I recommend the song highly but some incarnations are better than others.

Various Artists- Pitchfork, Lollapalooza, Outside, Newermind, Parklife : Spin, CMJ and other places sometimes offer free downloads and samplers so I get them when they are offered.  It’s a nice way to try different bands or to get a song I like that I don’t feel like paying for.  I dislike the fact that I have to burn this stuff to disc if I want a permanent copy and that I have to copy the track listing, but I get what I paid for it.  Usually I can find one or two gems amidst all the junk and that makes it worth the effort.  The Nirvana sampler contains the worst cover of a Nirvana song I’ve ever heard (Come As You Are) and that includes the Tori Amos cover of Smells Like Teen Spirit.


Washington Redskins- I saw an NFL football game, the Washington Redskins versus the Arizona Cardinals.  It was the second game of the season following the opening day win so optimism was still in the air.  I wanted to see the Redskins win but I didn’t want the Cardinals to lose.  Two people sitting next to me were in the same boat.  A mom was there with her kid.  She was a redskins fan and the little kid was screaming “Go Larry!” every play unless Beanie Wells got the ball, then he started screaming “Go Beanie!!!”  Everyone around him, including his mom, was looking at him like he was an alien.  He did not shut up until the last two minutes when Washington stripped Arizona of the ball to take control of the game and preserve their slight lead. 

TV Shows:

Take The Money And Run:  For this show, 2 people hide $100,000 within 30 minutes before the police “arrest” them and then they try to avoid telling the police where it is hidden.  If they can hold out for 48 hours of solitary confinement, broken up by periodic questioning from the cops, they get to keep the money.  If the cops find it or the prisoners confess as to where it is, the cops keep it.  I’ve seen four episodes and I can’t understand why someone would crack under the pressure of solitary.  I would get bored too but if that happened I’d use the down time to catch up on my sleep, write (since I think you’re allowed to keep a journal), or string along the cops so they keep pulling me in for questioning which would keep me entertained.  For 100 grand, I’d risk the insanity of 48 hours of being by myself.  It’s like things are now, except without any books or TV.  My only fear would be not finding a good hiding place for the loot within 30 minutes. (And I also wonder if someone from the show is keeping an eye on the money because some of the hiding places seem like they would be stumbled upon by random strangers.

Platinum Hit (Finale): I love this show about songwriting.  I hear that ratings were a challenge and it might not be back next season, which would be a shame.  If I have to watch reality shows, since that seems to be all that gets made these days, I’d at least like it to be one about a topic I enjoy.  This show gives contestants- in groups usually- a song theme and a time frame of a few hours and they need to create an original song and perform it in front of Jewel and guest judges like Leona Lewis.  My favorite, Jes Hudick, made it to the finale.  For the final competition, she came up with a killer song and I thought she might win even but no- she lost to someone else who I think won on the strength of her voice and lyrics.  Basically, the opponent let the producer create the music and she added lyrics and then performed it.  This is a song writing contest, not a lyrics or singing contest. If you don’t write the song, you shouldn’t win the competition! 

Fall TV Shows:

How I Met Your Mother, Glee, Castle, Raising Hope, Harry's Law, The Middle, Modern Family, Survivor: South Pacific, Big Bang Theory, Mentalist- These are all returning shows that I like and either watch in real time or shortly thereafter as opposed to shows that I wait for until they hit a rerun cycle during mid-season.  All of these shows remain interesting- no quality slumps, at least not in the first few episodes.

Two And A Half Men- Although I’m not an Ashton Kutcher fan, I don’t hate him either.  (He was the least interesting character on “That 70’s Show” and the only movies of his that I liked were The Butterfly Effect, No Strings Attached and What Happens In Vegas.)  I was impressed with the writer’s choices- killing off Charlie Sheen, via Rose, and making Jon Cryer the love guru.  Despite Cryer’s character’s romantic ineptitude, he is now the experienced ladies’ man of the house who gives advice to Kutcher.  Then in the second episode, toilet humor ruled and I had to re-evaluate my opinion.  Once I did, I decided that it is the same old show that I sometimes would watch.  The writer’s did a great job of changing the premise of the show, without changing the show’s formula.  Now that is a neat trick.

Acerbic comedian Whitney Cummings has two shows on this season.  The first is 2 Broke Girls.  It stars Kat Dennings, from Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist and, um, Thor.  She plays a broke-ass waitress with trust issues and a knack for making cupcakes and she befriends another waitress, who is also broke, but her poverty is because her millionaire father ran a Ponzi scheme and went to jail, causing all the family’s assets to be seized.  The two of them work together and live together, with their horse (I have no idea why.)  They are saving their money to open a cupcake store (even though by the time they make enough money for it, cupcakes will probably be a trend that has passed.)  Whitney writes this, along with Michael Patrick King (of Sex And The City,) as a typical sitcom albeit one with great lines and terrific actresses.  The whole thing crackles with energy and the line deliveries zing. 

Whitney’s other show is Whitney.  She stars in this one herself and it has been roundly savaged by critics and most of the people I know, although the ratings are decent somehow and it got picked up for a second season.  I like this show, despite the vitriol surrounding it, because I think Whitney is deliberately choosing to make a show that is a non-traditional comedy.  Her character is vain, defensive, petty, needy, sarcastic, cynical, bitchy and annoying yet still, occasionally and surprisingly, caring and sympathetic.  Her jokes are atypical and the premises veer away from the expected.  During a recent episode when she suddenly realized her boyfriend was enjoying the silent treatment she was giving him, you knew she was going to get him back somehow but what she said first was “That little bitch!”  You don’t expect an aggressive line like that. 

She then gave him the non-silent treatment by talking continuously about every boring, random thought she had.  I took this as a sarcastic comment on how people complain about not communicating enough but when you listen to what they actually say it is mind-numbingly trivial.  Plus on most shows, the girl is the eye candy and the guy gets all the jokes.  On Whitney, she is the instigator and star and the guy is relegated to the “soothing, sensible, supportive spouse” role.  I equate this show to other vehicles for cantankerous, grating characters like All In The Family and The Honeymooners.

Playboy Club- I twice tried to watch this show.  The first time was during the series premiere but I got bored, during the attempted rape scene no less, and switched to something else.  I later finished the first and second episode and didn’t see any reason to keep watching.  I love Amber Heard, the lead character and also from the movie I Am Number Four (as the kick-ass Number Six), but the show was slow, dull and unoriginal and didn’t really do anything with its’ 1970’s Playboy Club setting.  How can you make that environment boring?  I don’t have to worry any longer since the show has already been cancelled.  Although I often complain about shows I like being cancelled, at least the shows I dislike or that I don’t think are any good usually get cancelled too so it seems America gets it right half the time.

Biggest Loser- Jillian Michels isn’t on it this season, the show focuses more on the competition aspect than on diet/exercise tips and the weigh-in segment is interminably long hence I won’t watch it this season.

New Girl- Zooey DesChanel acts adorable and goofy, sometimes in a way relevant to her character, sometimes just because it is fun to do so.  No need to discuss the show’s premise because I’m already hooked. 

Unforgettable- Poppy Montgomery, an attractive red-headed (really brunette or blonde?) cop, has photographic memory.  She solves cases by recalling details from her memories the crime scenes and interviews.  It’s more engrossing than it sounds.  Plus did I mention she was attractive? 

Up All Night- Christina Applegate is back.  I’ve loved all her previous shows (Samantha Who?, Jesse, Married With Children, Heart Of The City) and on this one, she’s team with Will Arnett, and I’ve loved half his shows (Running Wilde, but not Arrested Development.  Go figure.)  After watching the first two shows, I’m thinking that Applegate is now batting 80% and Arnett is down to 33%.  This show just feels too predictable and the characters are too bland.  I see no reason to watch this compared to something else, like Community which is still the most clever, anarchic, hilarious show on right now.   Community started off great and just keeps upping the ante somehow.  Up All Night doesn’t have that feel.  To be fair though, almost no other shows do either. Maybe New Girl, 2 Broke Girls and Prime Suspect.  That’s it.

Free Agents- I would say something about this Hank Azaria show but I haven’t watched it yet, which is good since it has been cancelled after two episodes.

The X Factor- Simon Cowell returns with his spin on American Idol.  I was impressed that they landed Paula Abdul too.  So far I’ve just been turning in between commercials of other shows.  Not a good sign since reality show competition doesn’t usually do repeats so maybe I’ll just say I’m not going to watch this.

Revenge- a female, modern day version of The Count Of Monte Cristo, set in the Hamptons.  It’s a prime time soap opera basically.  I like it but I wish I felt more connection with the lead actress.  She’s not quite pretty enough, doesn’t seem devious or manipulative enough either and doesn’t appear to have backbone of steel I think is necessary for a revenge tale.

Prime Suspect- I like strong willed, powerful woman, especially in my entertainment choices.  I’ll take Linda Hamilton in T:2 or Angelina Jolie in Salt any day.  That’s why I really like the show In Plain Sight.  The lead character is a no-nonsense type who speaks her mind and matches up toe-to-toe with her male counterparts.  Even her recent pregnancy hasn’t softened her.  Now take that mindset and intensify it.  Make a grittier show and put a chip on the woman’s shoulder.  Make her smarter and a better detective than the males and make them resent her for it.  Now you have the show Prime Suspect.  It’s a remake of the British TV series by that name but since I haven’t seen that, I can’t say how true or loose it plays compared to this US version.  All I know is that I like this show and I would love to have Maria Bello’s character on any of my investigations.  She set the ground work for this character with her performances in History Of Violence and especially Payback.    

Charlie's Angels- I watched the first two episodes and wondered how they could bungle things sooo badly.  It tries to tread the line between camp humor, cop drama and action show.  The problem isn’t that it tries to be many different things (She Spies successfully did that same thing for several enjoyable seasons), it’s that it does all of them ineptly.  The humor is telegraphed, the action lacks in both intensity and believability and the plotlines are standard.  Their one good punch was when they killed off a name star in the pilot to make way for Minka Kelly’s character.  If they were going to go over the top, they should have done it like the second Charlie’s Angels movie did.

Person Of Interest- From the creators of Lost and featuring Michael Emerson, the squirrely guy from Lost.  In this show, he plays a squirrely guy with a secret agenda and he manipulates the people around him to achieve his objectives.  Sound familiar?  It is a bit like Lost in that there are secrets lurking underneath everything that is going on but it is also has a lot more action to it because the person being manipulated this time is Jim Cazaviel (from Passion Of The Christ), a former CIA covert operative.  He was recruited by Emerson to carry out dangerous missions for him since Cazaviel is a bad-ass government agent and Emerson is the squirrely nerd who created a massive computer program / surveillance network and knows when crimes are being committed against innocent people but he does not have the skills to stop them.  What I like about the show is the realism.  When people get shot, they get shot.  It’s not an A-Team type show where everyone dodges bullets and there is no sense of danger.  I’m intrigued and want to find out where this show is headed.

Secret Circle- Imagine the witch clique from the movie The Craft.  Pretend the setting is where ever Gossip Girl is set.  Throw in a dash of Heroes.  That’s this show.  I’ve only watched the premiere but I’ll watch a bit more once mid-season repeats start on my other favorite shows.  Same as I’ll do with The Ringer.

Pan Am- Aside from Person Of Interest and Ringer, this is the most convoluted show of the season and prior to seeing the first three episodes, I would have figured it to be one of the least complex shows.  It’s about Pan Am airlines stewardesses.  You’d imagine it has some glamorous settings, some “workplace” romances, and fun interactions with the passengers, kind of like an airborne Love Boat.  You don’t expect the subplots of CIA agents, runaway brides, class struggles, women’s lib issues, dark drama and a sexier vibe than that of The Playboy Club.  You also absolutely do not expect it to feature Christina Ricci.  Yeah, a legit movie star is in this thing and that’s not even the main reason it is good.  It is all of these things combined.  I really like this show.  Let’s hope it makes the cut.


Colorado Springs Zoo:  a pretty decent zoo.  Many of the pens have more space that other zoos and they had a diverse mix of animal.  I liked watching the hippo get fed a cabbage head and lettuce scraps and the monkey house was interesting although I could do without seeing the penises on that one variety of monkey.  It was also fun to watch Brendan pet the giraffe and the wallaby and ride the carousel.  He got a bit cranky toward the end which was right about the time Mom and Dad got hungry so we wrapped it up shortly after that, and dodged the rain again.

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