Saturday, March 31, 2007

Remaking the '80s

Of all the song collections iTunes has cooked up to stimulate impulse purchases, this new celebration of covers of 1980s pop music is one of the most intriguing. It has a strong "Wha?" factor — familiar artists doing covers that you never knew existed (when did UB40 do "Every Breath You Take"? Must have been an attempt to cash in after their Elvis cover, "Can't Help Falling in Love," went to Number One). Between the list's obvious selections, such as "It's My Life" by No Doubt and "Cruel Summer" by Ace of Base, there's an arguably too-generous helping of album filler and some live covers by second- and third-tier acts. It's these, however, that prove to be conversation pieces, if not necessarily successful covers.

Some highlights and lo-lights of the 80-song play list:

Too Late for Goodbyes • The Wallflowers
One of the seemingly more off-the-wall covers finds the one-headlighters tackling Julian Lennon's harmonica-with-synth hit.

Tainted Love • The Pussycat Dolls
A horribly misguided effort that strips away the blippy, electronic charm of one of the best of the '80s (which, of course, was also a cover). "Stickwitu," this ain't.

Take My Breath Away • Jessica Simpson
I never could quite make out the lyric, "If only for today / I am unafraid" before hearing Simpson's cover, which could have been much worse.

King of Pain • Alanis Morissette
From MTV Unplugged, this is absolutely friggin' brilliant, although I wish she'd called it "Queen of Pain," which I'm sure she is.

True Colors • Phil Collins
The worst of Phil Collins meets the best of Cyndi Lauper.

Total Eclipse of the Heart • Tori Amos
I can't tell if this is interesting, as iTunes has put the sample squarely within one of Tori's rambling, spoken introductions in which she goes on about who requested the song, magical fairies and what she'll have for dinner after the show.

Jump (Van Halen) • Paul Anka
I love a cover that plants a familiar tune in a wholly new genre — a direction that may even seem inappropriate on the surface. With a perfectly straight face, Anka takes favorites like "True," "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "It's a Sin" to the swing lounge.

I'm So Excited • Le Tigre
These sisters may not have pipes to match the Pointers, but this bubbly remake is one of the best of this list's obscurities.

Movies: Premonition

• I had an inkling it wouldn't be all that.

Genres: Suspense, thriller, time warp
Director: Mennan Yapo
Cast: Sandra Bullock, Julian McMahon, Nia Long, Kate Nelligan, Amber Valletta, Peter Stormare
Run time: 1:37
Verdict: &&1/2

For no apparent reason other than some jarring soundtrack noises, Linda Hanson (Sandra Bullock) is living the days of a Very Bad Week out of order. Early in the proceedings, the sheriff shows up at her door to inform her that her husband, Jim (Julian McMahon), has been killed in a car crash, but she awakes the next morning to find hubby downstairs having breakfast before heading to work. The next day, he's dead again. As Hanson faces mounting confusion with each passing day, she begins to piece together the sequence of events and surmises that Jim will die while on a business trip. Her sleuthing also leads to a marital revelation that sullies the perfect white picket fence. Meanwhile, like so many movie heroines in peril, Hanson is looked upon suspiciously by family and authority figures. Premonition is a mildly entertaining thriller that occasionally drops false hints that it's going to become something more interesting than it is, such as when the clergyman talks to her about the unexplained and the "curse" of the faithless. Nevertheless, it does build a certain oh-no-don't frisson as the final scenes race to climax.

Photo: Hanson (Bullock) gazes down the lost highway.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Random reviews

• Quick takes on new and recent TV odds and ends.

TV The Ri¢hes (FX, 9 p.m. Mondays)
The pilot of FX's new drama found fertile material in the screwed up lives of thieving gypsies / travellin' folk / con artists. Here's hoping the Eddie Izzard and Minnie Driver-fronted series doesn't lose its edge as the Riches and their two children assume the lives of a recently departed, well-to-do family.
Premiere: &&&1/2

TV on DVD Battlestar Galactica Season 2.5
Since I don't have Sci-Fi on cable, I've just finished up last season while the rest of the world is basking in late season three and news of renewal for the fourth. Season two continued to raise the bar for un-geeky sci-fi and still is, for my money, the best drama on television today from any broadcast outlet, cable or otherwise. Loaded with weighty plot points — President Roslin's bleak struggle with cancer, the fate of the hybrid baby and the pivotal presidential election pitting Roslin against a former ally — this season continued the trend of getting impossibly richer as the series progresses while maintaining its earthiness and toaster (cylon) sexiness. The last three episodes tease and twist beautifully; just when a viewer could get a tad complacent, a shocking new direction is cast. Verdict: &&&&&

DVD A Life in Pop
"Chris (Lowe) and I share in the fantasy that was and is the Pet Shop Boys," says Neil Tennant in this lengthy UK documentary on the career of PSB. Fans can rightly quibble that this or that album or issue gets glossed over, but this doc is made essential by frank interviews with the likes of Brandon Flowers (The Killers), Tim Rice-Oxley (Keane), Trevor Horn, Robbie Williams and, of course, Tennant and Lowe, who have refused to play by the rules over the course of nine albums. Verdict: &&&&

TV on DVD Seinfeld Season 4
"It's going to be hard to even watch Seinfeld now," a friend of mine said after the bizarre Michael Richards incident, but I'm not boarding that train — I'm still happily whisked away to the world of Seinfeldian minutiae. After perfecting its tone in season three, a confident boldness blossoms in season four with outstanding episodes such as "The Cheever Letters," "The Contest," "The Airport" and "The Outing." And it bears repeating that the Seinfeld DVDs are the gold standard in packaging and extras, enhancing an already sublime experience. Verdict: &&&&&

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Racy reads

The recent passing of Sidney Sheldon, a playwright, screenwriter and novelist, prompted some lively discussion among Entertainment Weekly readers about "forbidden" books — racy reads they discovered as curious teens and apparently fondly remember for those "enlightening" passages. Many of the first novels I read were by Sheldon — I think it was because my grandmother was reading them — and I recall those thick paperbacks as being much in quality like the movie Independence Day, which seemed good in the moment but horrible in hindsight. With titles like If Tomorrow Comes and Rage of Angels, they flowed more like screenplays than novels, really, so it's no surprise Sheldon is better regarded for his work in television (he created I Dream of Jeanie, Hart to Hart and The Patty Duke Show). The last of his novels I remember reading is The Doomsday Conspiracy, which, given his style, was an uneasy stab at an alien invasion tale. I can't remember any alien-human sex scenes, but I'm sure they were there.

Other writers frequently mentioned by EW readers as adding a little extra spring to their early literary adventures are Judith Krantz, Scott Turow (wha?) and Stephen King. Having read probably 90 percent of King's books, I'll agree with that — the early ones, in particular, can be counted on for gratuitous bits here and there.

Following is the top five EW compiled based on reader feedback. One I can think of to add is Firefly by Piers Anthony, in which an alien mimics sex pheromones to lure its prey:

1 Flowers in the Attic • V.C. Andrews (1979) Described by EW as an "incest classic." I'm ashamed to say I've read it and saw the movie on TV. Andrews died in 1986 but has been prolific from the grave, producing far more novels than she did when alive.

2 Forever • Judy Blume (1975)

3 The Godfather • Mario Puzo (1969) In retrospect, my young adulthood seems less boring knowing that other teens were reading Scott Turow and The Godfather.

4 Chances • Jackie Collins (1981)

5 The Clan of the Cave Bear • Jean M. Auel (1980) Pegged as "prehistoric porn." Now I know why all those girls were carrying it around back in junior high.

What literary "classics" would you add?

Sunday, March 11, 2007

DVD: The Prestige

• 'The Prestige' pulls lots of tricks but doesn't make much magic.

Genres: Drama, period
Director: Christopher Nolan
DVD released: Feb. 20, 2007
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, David Bowie
Verdict: &&

This hocus-pocus period piece seems to have worked for many critics and audiences, but I'm not among them. No one enjoys a smart plot deception more than I, but I've grown really weary of the last-minute twist in movies — something that no viewer could possibly have dreamed up, even if they were trying — to cast the two hours of mess we just endured in a shocking new light. The one thing that's abundantly clear throughout The Prestige is that Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale portray magicians who hate each other to the point of violence. Each spends the movie trying to upstage and sabotage the other, and the best parts of the movie take place onstage as they attempt to pull off increasingly difficult illusions. Jarring jumps in time do nothing to aid a plot that aspires to be too clever for its own good, even if that device worked for Nolan in the also-overrated Memento. By the time the movie finally reaches its own contrived "prestige" — a term for the payoff at the end of a magic trick — I could only shake my head and wish for the 130 minutes back. // DVD notes // Bonus material explores the director's alleged sleight of hand, but I couldn't get it out of my player quickly enough.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

DVD: Stranger than Fiction

• Will Ferrell's latest is surprisingly existential and shockingly good.

Genres: Comedy-drama
Director: Marc Forster
DVD released: Feb. 27, 2007
Cast: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah
Verdict: &&&&

Like Groundhog Day and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Stranger than Fiction is a movie that tinkers with the nature of existence and creates something profound in the process. It's not a stretch to imagine Bill Murray in the role — the disaffected protagonist certainly fits the mold of the lead characters in Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers. However, Will Ferrell, who has a previous filmography as appealing as a forgotten, years-old fruitcake found at the back of a dark pantry, manages to shed his usual silly persona (the movie still has laughs, though) to convincingly portray a boring urbanite — IRS auditor Harold Crick, who hears a voice talking about him while brushing his teeth one morning. He gradually realizes that the voice is a narrator (Emma Thompson) and that he is a player in a narrative out of his control. Or is it? Aided by a literature professor (Dustin Hoffman), he eventually becomes aware that the voice is a real-world novelist (also Thompson) who ultimately kills off her central characters. He sets out to confront her, but not before falling in love with an anarchist baker (Maggie Gyllenhaal) whom he audits as the voice begins to torment him. Emma Thompson is perfection as the narrator and novelist Kay Eiffel, and the narrative is one of the great pleasures of the movie. What sounds like a gimmick in the trailer is full of beautifully descriptive passages that cast Crick's boring existence in a different light as the omniscient voice precisely enunciates the tale of Crick (and his wristwatch, which becomes a pivotal character). It's wholly believable that these passages flow from the typewriter of an accomplished novelist, and Thompson is delightfully unhinged as the writer trying to keep the words flowing. As the movie forces the viewer to think about the value of a life versus the value of a great piece of art, a delicious anticipation builds for the inevitable climactic scenes. A superb supporting cast and vivid visuals, such as the occasional graphical user interface that reflects Crick's mathematical auditor's mind at work, serve to enhance an unexpectedly captivating movie that is unconventional, existential and highly recommended. // DVD notes // One deleted and one extended scene offer more of the funny book chat show featured in the movie. Featurettes are numerous and exhaustive, covering topics such as how they made that snazzy graphical user interface.

Can you read my mind?

Some things to know about the new single by The Killers:

• It is called "Read My Mind" and it is amazingly good. I am prepared to say that it is better than both "Somebody Told Me" and "Mr. Brightside" from the last album. In a world ruled by good taste, this would be an instant Top 5 Smash, if not a Number One. This obviously will not happen in this world.

• This song has reignited my excitement about The Killers that had gone down the dumper with "When You Were Young" and all the reviews hailing the more "rock" sound of Sam's Town.

• The lyrics are slightly mysterious. I like this bit: I never really gave up on / Breakin' out of this two-star town / I got the green light / I got a little fight / I'm gonna turn this thing around

• Pet Shop Boys have produced an outstanding remix called the "Pet Shop Boys Stars Are Blazing Mix." It turns the synthy rock track into a dance track even as it creates a more ethereal quality via some Coldplay-esque piano bits. I'm not in love with the way the mix goes supernova at the end, however, so I wanted to get the edit. Which brings us to …

• The two-track import single is a rather confused affair. It's listed on Amazon and elsewhere as containing the PSB radio edit, but it actually contains the full, 7+ minutes mix. Even the labeling on the packaging is off: It lists the track as the full mix but with a time of 4:02, which would be the edit. The iTunes store is not selling the edit. Argh!

• Brandon Flowers of The Killers is apparently quite the PSB fan. In the recent PSB documentary A Life in Pop, he practically steals words from my mouth when discussing the song "Being Boring" and the 1993 album Very.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Movies: Reno 911!: Miami

• Deputies Trudy Wiegel and Raineesha Williams on the beach. Who could resist?

Genres: Comedy, TV adaptation
Director: Robert Ben Garant
Cast: Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant, Kerri Kenney-Silver, Cedric Yarbrough, Carlos Alazraqui, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Niecy Nash, Mary Birdsong, Paul Rudd
Verdict: &&&

The gang from Reno 911! heads to Miami for a major law enforcement convention and sordid getaway to find that they haven't been registered and have no reservations. Determined to salvage the trip, they check into the seedy International Inn. "This hotel," muses bipolar Deputy Trudy Wiegel, "is the kind of place you'd come for a good, old-fashioned rapin.' " This funny adaptation features the inept cast of characters of the cable comedy that often feels like an episode of Cops re-imagined as darker, funnier SNL skits and set in the land of gambling and prostitution ("like Mayberry, except everyone's on meth," observes Deputy Travis Junior). When a biological terrorism incident (or some such) causes everyone else to be trapped inside the convention, the Reno crew is called into action to patrol Miami. Many of the funniest bits, however, revolve around racy antics at the International Inn, where Wiegel tries to seduce uninterested, short-shorts wearing Lt. Jim Dangle. The plot wears thin at times, but you don't come to this for plot, and it's far more fun than the crappy fright flick of the week (that means you, The Number 23). // Flags // Heed the R rating.