Monday, May 28, 2007

Shrek the Third

Today I went to the local multiplex to see the third Shrek movie, aptly titled Shrek The Third. The first two Shrek films had the right balance of kiddie fun, grown up pop culture snarkiness and engaging fairy tale storytelling. Mike Myer's gruff ogre Shrek, Cameron Diaz' compassionate Princess Fiona and Eddie Murphy's silly rambling Donkey all return and retain the good will built up over the previous movies. Despite the likeability of these characters plus Antonio Bandera's ladies man version of Puss N Boots the third movie is not able to live up to the previous two.

The story this time revolves around Shrek and his friends trying to recruit a wimpy teenage Arthur Pendragon (King Arthur) to take the place of ruler over Far Far Away instead of the initially appointed Shrek. Meanwhile, Prince Charming decides he and the other fairy tale villians don't deserve the fate they've been handed and conspire to overthrow Far Far Away's ruling class.

Shrek the Third moves along at a good pace and the high level of animation continues to improve. The movie tries to have something for all ages, for example when the Gingerbread Man is threated by Prince Charming and Captain Hook his response is to call Charming "King of the Stupids!" and then goes into a Six Million Dollar Man / Brazil inspired delerium. A clever classic rock inspired soundtrack (includes Led Zeppelin, Paul McCartney, Heart and the Ramones) also helps old folks like me feel comfortable. All things considered, Shrek the Third still holds your attention and gives a few good chuckles along the way.

Despite doing everything reasonably well, Shrek the Third simply feels uninspired and workmanlike creatively compared to the previous movies. It lacks the zippy sense of zeal the other movies had, you could sense the performers and filmmakers pushing their digital animation as far as their creativity could go on the other films. After last summer's dismal ticket receipts, it seems the call went out in Hollywood for all sequels to report in for duty. At the end of the day, the big green guy still wins but it's not's the guy at Dreamworks holding all the cash.

Friday, May 25, 2007

VH1 Rock Honors and Women in Rock

This week was a big week for women in rock. I saw the second round of VH1 Rock Honors, the first one being a hard rock tribute featuring Judas Priest, Def Leppard and Kiss along with newer bands covering their classics. It was an entertaining show that played on VH1 Classic about every 20 seconds every day for a few months. Now there's a second one which I was really looking forward to because it sounded like my high school cassette tape collection: ZZ Top, Heart, Genesis and Ozzy. I grew up listening to all these bands, except Ozzy who I only have a mild liking for.

I was really looking forward to watching Genesis reunite with their classic 80's touring lineup (go Chester Thompson!) and they were solid but the band I really enjoyed both in performance and tribute was Heart. The Wilson sisters cranked through "Crazy On You" with the power and grace they've shown throughout their career. I've liked "Crazy On You", "Straight On" and "Barracuda" since I was a kid who didn't know it was all the same band. In the 80's,I played their Heart (1985) and Bad Animals (1987) tapes to death with great power ballads like "What About Love" and "Alone". At the start of the 90's I lost track of the band though I've enjoyed a few television appearances the Wilsons made since then.

But the one performance that blew me away more than any other musical event this week is Alice In Chains with Country star Gretchen Wilson and Heart's Nancy Wilson. Alice In Chains rendered a slightly grungy, hard charging version of "Barracuda" with Gretchen Wilson wailing like the Ann Wilson of the mid 70's. Gretchen Wilson's voice had a touch of country to distinguish it from the original, but the sass and gut bucket fury matched Ann Wilson's to a T. Add Nancy Wilson with her famous "rocker" poses and leg kicks and you've got the most potent rock performance so far this year. This unlikely combination of performers brought down the house with a sound that was driving, technically brilliant (Jerry Cantrell's solos were astounding) and pretty damn sexy (Redneck woman Gretchen Wilson belted with intensity in her tight jeans while Nancy Wilson bounced around like it was the "Never" video).

Another strong performance came from Kelly Clarkson on American Idol. The more I hear her new song "Never Again" the more I think eh...but it sounds like her support for the new album is wearing on her voice. While this may not be good for her pop stuff, Clarkson's rocker side benefits from the raspiness and limited vocal power. Clarkson sounded dead on like Pat Benatar raising a mediocre song to new heights. Lots of rumors about the quality of Kelly Clarkson's new disc being bad in the press, I hope the rumors are false with performances like this one!

Oh yeah, Jordin Sparks won American Idol. Sparks seemed nice and talented, yet I just don't care.

Oh well,maybe Sparks can duet with Clarkson on "Heartbreaker". The Pat Benatar song, not Led Zeppelin or Dionne Warwick. Keep rockin and enjoy VH1 Rock Honors. Fast forward the Bam Margera parts. I know I did :)

Friday, May 18, 2007

Chris Isaak / Stevie Nicks

Last night I saw Chris Isaak and Stevie Nicks perform at the, Sleep Train Pavilion on a cool northern California night. It was the fourth time I was seeing Stevie Nicks live (if you include Fleetwood Mac) and the first time I saw Chris Isaak. In fact, I only knew a few Chris Isaak songs so a few weeks ago I bought his "Best of" disc to prepare. A good thing I did that, because he pulled most of his material from there. The songs I remember are:

Dancin' (I think it was that song)/unknown rockabilly song/Somebody's Crying/Wicked Game/other unknown songs/I Want You To Want Me/Blue Hotel/Baby Did A Bad Bad Thing-Don't Be Cruel-I'm Gone medley/Only The Lonely/unknown rockabilly song/Forever Blue (acoustic)

The Best of Chris Isaak CD showed a tasteful roots rocker with a love of Roy Orbison's haunted crooning and an armful of ballads. The disc had some exciting moments but for the most part was respectable lite rock. It gave me a sense of his music, but gave no warning of his live performance.

Live, Chris Isaak is a different animal. Isaak can sing every bit as well as on disc and he was backed by a crack band of talented musicians. The surprise was in place of the somewhat dull crooner on CD stood a 50's influenced rocker with a true sense of showmanship and engaging personality. Right after sitting down in my seat, Isaak left the stage and ran with his guitar from the front row to the lawn section to rock with the crowd. He joked with his keyboard player after the organ solo in "Somebody's Crying" by singing "I know when...Somebody's Drinking". Before his encore a masked wrestler with a silver cape ran around the stage ranting in Spanish. Isaak joked and told raunchy stories between and during his songs. To top it off, Isaak finished his set in a suit made of disco ball mirrors that projected spots of light in all directions. For a guy who sings torturous romantic ballads he was really funny! By the end of his set, I was wondering why he didn't have a bigger career.

After a set change was the original witchy woman herself, Stevie Nicks. This was the second solo Stevie Nicks concert I attended, the first was about 12 years ago when Nicks was bloated and tired from antidepressants. It was still a good show and a few years later she got herself together for a Fleetwood Mac reunion that was one of my favorite concerts of all time. The set list I think went:

Stand Back/Dreams/If Anyone Falls/Piano Solo/Rhiannon/Enchanted/Gold Dust Woman/I Need To Know/Landslide/Fall From Grace/Sorcerer/How Still My Love/Drums, Percussion & Guitar Solo/Edge Of Seventeen/Rock & Roll (encore)

The show starts with the band revving up "Stand Back" and Stevie Nicks makes a slow entrance from the rear right of the stage to the microphone. When she reaches the mic, Nicks belts out the vocal with a power I haven't heard from her live. Usually, the Bay Area is near the end of her tours so she usually is worn physically and vocally when I've seen her. Not this time. This is the Stevie Nicks that I've heard about but never really saw, the fiery belter and mystical show woman performing with unclouded focus and power.

Smartly, Nicks brought back guitarist Waddy Watchtel along with her usual troupe of background singers to bring back the Bella Donna groove of '81 (only two songs performed came after '83). Ace percussionist Lenny Castro is also along for the ride along with an expert band of talented musicians. Together, they bring together the "classic" Stevie Nicks sound of her first two solo records (basically the Tom Petty sound with studio musicians). Watchtel's ragged guitar playing a central role, giving the songs a harder rock edge and looser feel missing from Nick's later solo work.

The highlights were many, some that stood out: Enjoying "Stand Back" live (never liked the song live, it always seemed flat when played with Fleetwood Mac) including a huge crowd pop when Nicks performed her first spin. An epic "Rhiannon" with a heavier guitar riff thanks to Watchtel and a great guitar solo with Stevie shadowing behind him with her shawl stretched out. Like a lace Batgirl. Fantastic visual effects during "Gold Dust Woman" with a screenful of falling gold. A sentimental "Landslide" with clips and photos of past performances and her family. Lastly, a killer "Edge Of Seventeen" with Nicks trading off the vocals on the bridge with Sharon Celani.

All in all a great show. I went with my Mom who bought the tickets and had a great time. Thanks Mom!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Oh No! American Idol gets it wrong...again!

Well, Melinda Doolittle was eliminated from American Idol tonight in favor of perky Jordin Sparks and the Howard Jones of beatboxing Blake Lewis. Doolittle had been the front runner throughout the season as she delivered one impressive performance after another. Doolittle had excellent vocal control, tasteful (some might say too tasteful) song selections and a craftsman approach to her performances (she understood the songs she sang, portrayed the emotion she needed to project and had a nuanced style to her singing). Plus, she was genuinely nice to others and took criticism well. So what went wrong?

What went wrong was, through no fault of her own, she was too perfect. Doolittle never had a bad performance, never trashed others or had any scandal. This made her very easy to admire but impossible for America to love. America likes comeback stories they can identify with and if you never fail you have nothing to comeback from. The remaining Idols performances veered from pathetic to mindblowing while their open personalities won fans. In Rocky IV terms, they were Rocky to Doolittle's Drago.

So Melinda Doolittle goes the way of Latoya London,a great singer who loses because of too much talent and not enough personality. Even when her elimination was announced, Melinda Doolittle was gracious and then delivered another impeccable performance. As great as her performance is, a few months from now people will forget about her. It's sad to say, but if Melinda had thrown a petty fit and then cried her way through the last song she would have become a star. And if she had done it a few weeks ago, she would have been the next American Idol!

A last note, I hope this ends the "this is a singing competition" claim American Idol makes every year because it is so clearly not. I'll watch the finale, but let's face it-this contest is already over.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Number 51

It's been kind of a dead week in the world of pop culture, so now seems like a good time to resume my favorite CD countdown. My 51st favorite CD is:

Bob Marley - Legend (1984)

I think it was Bono who said about Bob Marley, "Prophet. Soul rebel. Rastaman. Herbsman. Wildman. A natural, mystic man. Lady's man. Island man. Family man. Rita's man. Soccer man. Showman. Shaman. Human. Jamaican!" It was a great description of the man and says a lot about what he meant to people, but to be honest I just like his music. I've never been into reggae and my appreciation for it pretty much stops after Bob Marley and UB40. However, Bob Marley's music transcends the genre for me.

Legend culls what is recognized as Bob Marley's greatest hits onto one disc. Marley's music has a sense of hope that runs through it, even when he is singing about shooting sheriffs or deputies. To an outsider of the music, reggae often seems like one repetitive groove over and over (as most music you are not into sounds to a non listener) yet Legend has a variety of material. There are upbeat dance tunes such as the relentless "Exodus" or the song Eric Clapton made a #1 hit, "I Shot The Sheriff." His music could be seductive on slower numbers, like on "Stir It Up" or "Waiting In Vain." And in an unusual style for any lasting popular artist, Bob Marley could sound really happy as with "Three Little Birds" or "Satisfy My Soul". Usually happy songs are written off as being shallow and are often unappreciated yet Bob Marley's music is so infectious it doesn't matter.

There is definitely some rebel spirit to Bob Marley as his classic "Get Up Stand Up" demonstrates and he could translate his yearnings into spiritual quests as with "No Woman No Cry". But my favorite is the simple folk ballad "Redemption Song". It is an acoustic ballad that carries emotional power of a person quietly fighting for freedom with heavy resolve.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Judgement Day in LA

It was a sad week in the City of Angels this week, as it was revealed that Paris Hilton will do 45 days in prison for disregarding some laws that have to do with driving with a suspended license. OK, maybe not quite sad, replace that word with "funny". While I have nothing against Paris Hilton, it's almost a sitcom setup to think of a spoiled rich girl will be spending time in the pokey. Sort of like Private Benjamin (1980), except replace the Army with prison and Goldie Hawn in her prime was cuter. Then again, maybe Paris will be on the survailence cameras long enough to make a sequel to Linda Blair's Chained Heat (1983). Cool! Or, is that hot? The Stars may be Blind, but Lady Justice is not! Ok, I'll stop now. It's not nice to make fun of the mild misfortune of others who are infinitely more wealthy than you.

In other LA news, Chris "nasal is a singing style" Richardson and Phil "Uncle Fester" Stacey were voted off American Idol this week. Finally, some of the deadwood is being cut away leaving the talent that has carried this season. Bon Jovi is a long time favorite of mine and it was great to see him coach the performers with actual constructive criticism. Blake Lewis transformed "You Give Love A Bad Name" into an 80's dance mix while Melinda Doolittle showed her range by performing "Have A Nice Day" with Tina Turnerish conviction. Meanwhile, Jordan Sparks coasted through a ridiculous performance of "Livin' On A Prayer". Sorry Jordan, you're cute but that prayer up and died.

Bon Jovi also gave a performance of his new song "You Want To Make A Memory". The tune is a slow moving ballad meant to fit in multiple radio formats coinciding with his rumored Country tinged album Lost Highway (2007). It's a decent song that grows on you after a few plays but I think the commercial aspects of this is iffy. If you're going to make a slow moving Alison Krauss style ballad...well, it helps if you're Alison Krauss. I do like the song though and if you'd like to check it out, here it is!

(Big thanks to my wife for showing me this trick!)

I saw two movies this weekend that also had to do with Judgement, they were Series 7: The Contenders (2000) and Girl On A Bridge (1999). Series 7 is about a fake reality show where the contestants sign up to literaly kill each other. Shot with unerring precision in the reality television style (shot on video, know it all voice over commentator, dramatic re-enactments, video vigenette profiles of the contestants and their back stories) Series mercilously makes it's point. The show represents the unending bloodlust, voyeurism and thirst for dramatic conflict of the television viewing public. Can we be far off from a show that literaly does this? Well, yeah we are but something close to it will probably pop up eventually.

Girl On A Bridge is a French film shot in glorious black and white about a washed up knife thrower who talks a girl out of commiting suicide on a bridge and becoming his assistant. Both actors (Daniel Auteli and Vannessa Paradis) give empathic performances as two hard luck losers bound by an indominable streak of good luck. Girl is a magnetic, facinating look at two people who need each other to fend off their self destructive patterns. And the sexual metaphor of knife throwing has never been more palpable than it is here.