Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Music Review: Lenny Kravitz: Baptism

Lenny Kravitz has become something of a institution in the modern free-for-all known as rock ‘n roll. His cover of the Guess Who’s “American Woman” will have him enshrined in rock lore for a long time, while original tunes like “Fly Away” showcase his ability for assembling a great hard rock song.

When Lenny Kravitz is on, he’s classic.

However, try as he might, Kravitz can never seem to come away with more than two great songs on any given album. I fear his attention is mostly given to creating his hit singles, and the rest of the tracks he spends time baring his soul with limp-legged uninspired tunes.

When Lenny Kravitz is off, he’s forgettable.

Baptism is proving to be no exception to the rule. Blasting on to the charts powered by his lead-off single “Lady,” it was then followed up with the more impressive “Where Are We Runnin’?” which then proved to be the last we heard of Lenny for the meanwhile.

The other eleven tracks on this album prove to be easily skipped over on the CD, because there just isn’t anything there which is that inspired.

The one late highlight to the disc is Kravitz’s duet with Jay-Z who makes a notable guest appearance.

Aside from “Lady” and “Where Are We Runnin’?” I fear this album will slip into the $4.99 bin at Wal-mart soon enough, joining many of his other works like Lenny, Mama Said and Are You Gonna Go My Way?

Kravitz has a phenomenal persona. His image and his style add up to being truly larger than life. Sadly, I just don’t think his talent or vision is capable of keeping up.

Final Grade: C-

Movie Review: A Prairie Home Companion

Starring: Garrison Keillor, Kevin Kline, Maya Rudolph, Meryll Streep, Lily Tomlin, Lindsay Lohan, John C. Reilly, Woody Harrelson, Virginia Madsen, Tommy Lee Jones, the Guys All-Star Shoe Band
Directed By: Robert Altman

This is a film that will be on the must-see list for any fan(s) of:

Prairie Home Companion, Garrison Keillor, Meryll Streep, Kevin Kline, St. Paul, MN, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tommy Lee Jones, Virginia Madsen, Cowboys, Film Noir, Lindsay Lohan, Bluegrass Music, NPR, Robert Altman,The Guys All-Star Shoe Band, Tim Russel, Radio, Dirty Jokes, Old Theater Buildings, Lily Tomlin, Maya Rudolph, Spaguetti Sauce, Minnesota, the Midwest, or Gym Socks.

I don’t know how big of a fan of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion Robert Altman is, but judging by the way he crafted this film, you would think it was a labor of love for the veteran director.
Altman, having achieved legendary status as a director with such classic films as M*A*S*H* and Gosford Park turns his eye to the world of public radio, and a beloved radio program which still broadcasts most Saturday evenings from the F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.
Featuring a A-list roster of actors, many of whom play characters which regularly appear on PHC, the show is stuff to the rim with an endless variety of things for the eye and ear to take in.

The Premise: We follow the events at what proves to be the very last broadcast of a Prairie Home Companion on WLT because of a recent corporate buy-out, and the current owners feel the show has outlived its time. Various characters react in different ways, but it is, despite their resistance and struggle, the last time a broadcast airs from the Fitzgerald stage.

From the first few moments this film was such a joy for me to watch. Often times studios will find it much easier to recreate a location inside a massive sound stage in Hollywood, which allows their camera and lighting crew a much easier task, not to mention not having an entire cast and crew displaced to a new city for the duration of shooting.
But it becomes very clear quickly that the F. Scott Fitzgerald theatre itself is going to be a main character in this film, which ends up being of the great delights of the picture.

The theatre, (particularly the backstage area) is not large, so the camera is never far away from its subjects, often pressing you into the midst of their conversation, almost by accident. The surroundings become part of the story, not only because of their uniquely individual architecture and decorations, but because it forces you to stay close to the character, to the story by not letting the camera ever take a wide-angle shot.
Even in the main theatre, (which is not a very large auditorium) you never swing away to a dizzying height on a crane shot, showing you the grandeur of the hall. We are meant to feel close to the cast, as though they were old friends who have come for dinner, and they all brought banjos.

Most dialogue scenes are filled with Altman’s signature overlapping dialogue, which some would argue is an attempt to have more seemingly organic conversation, but in the case of the mayhem of a concert backstage, it helps to heighten the chaos and confusion, allowing the individual’s ears to choose what it wants to listen to.

As I mentioned before, many of the characters that have been created during PHC’s tenure on the radio are characters in the film. The casting for this film was really excellent. Chosen are a roster of actors whom share many Oscars between them. Whether it be an honor to work with Altman, or belief in the story they’re telling, or perhaps its just love of the game, but the actors all seemed to be having a great time working their craft.

Guy Noir, the radio detective in the vein of the Shadow, is played by Kevin Kline, who heads up security for the Fitzgerald, and spends his time in the movie searching for the elusive Virginia Madsen, who turns out to be the death angel. Kline definitely got to play the most comically with his character. It was fun to see his impressions of Guy Noir, probably having listened to the entire recorded history at least once to get an idea of how Garrison Keillor made him talk, which in turn gave him an idea of mannerisms and level of basic intelligence. (Which as it turns out, is rather low.)

Dusty and Lefty, the trail hand cowboys are played by John C. Reilly and Woody Harrelson. The radio PHC usually depicts them on the lonely dusty trail somewhere herding cattle somewhere in Minnesota or Iowa, but for the purposes of the movie, Dusty and Lefty wander around backstage in full regalia, looking reminiscent of the Marlboro man, complete with faces that looked like they haven’t seem soap in weeks.

Meryll Streep and Lily Tomlin play fictional characters created for the film. The Johnson Sisters are gospel-singing sisters from Wisconsin one of whom has a history with Mr. Keillor (or as the film refers to him, GK.) They perform on the show (using their real voices) and try to crash-land one of the faux-commercials involving duct tape. All in all their presence is a lot of fun, and Streep again accomplishes the task of creating such an organic character, that you feel as though you have known her your whole life.

Garrison Keillor really does steal the show, however. It is his ship, after all.
I wondered how they were going to handle his role in the movie. PHC is a one-man show in many respects, and it was comforting to see that they did very much keep him in the center of attention.
He took on all the responsibilities we’re used to hearing him do on the radio, singing, hosting, monologuing, and quite surprisingly, being exactly the same person on screen that we hear on the radio.

This begs the question: is Garrison Keillor ever not Garrison Keillor?

In the film, GK is constantly being distracted by one conversation or another, a seemingly bottomless well of subtly humorous stories, usually involving “pants around his ankles” as a punch line.

It is true: Garrison Keillor is an ugly man. He looks sort of like a carp. An old carp.

(Side Note: Saturday Night Live’s Maya Rudolph makes her most impressive and human performance with this film – too bad she doesn’t get to do this on SNL.)

This film is worthy of remembering come Awards Season again. Altman should get a nod, as well as art production, set design and a slew of other technical awards for the work accomplished filming inside the F. Scott Fitzgerald.
As far as acting goes, we have a long year ahead of us, so it’s too early to tell.

The Grade: A+

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Movie Review: Nacho Libre
Starring: Jack Black, Hector Jimenez, Ana de la Reguera
Directed by: Jared Hess

If any of you have read this blog for a while you’ll remember my first reaction to hearing of this film’s production. I believe it went something like this:

“The greatest idea for a movie. Ever.”

Perhaps I am paraphrasing slightly.

I had the honor of watching an early screening of this film with my mother (the poor girl) the night before it was released.
I’m afraid I have to say that this film joins a growing category of films where my concept for the film ends up being funnier than the film produced.

This film has been anticipated by millions for two different reasons:

1. The return of Jack Black. Ever since School of Rock, audiences have fed out of Mr. Black’s hand. The promotions for this film looked beyond ridiculous, and finally gave reason for any comic’s coup de grace: wearing tights. (Think Elf.)

2. The return of Jared Hess. The now infamous director of Napoleon Dynamite, 2004’s cult comedy hit makes his sophomoric return with Nacho.

2(a). Mike White, writer of School of Rock and Orange County reunites with School alum Jack Black for both a writing and a producing credit.

The premise: Black plays a monk (Nacho) in a Mexican monastery who tries to fulfill his childhood dream of being a Luchidore, even despite the warnings by the head priests that wrestling is evil, and he would certainly be dismissed from the monastery for his actions.
Despite the warnings, Black’s character begins an adventure to become the greatest luchadore that Mexico has ever known.
Oh, and Nacho falls in love with a nun, Sister Encarnacioin, (de la Reguera.)

Simple plot, and for a director such as Hess, whose success was entirely based upon his ability to point the camera at his actors and let them do the work.
The reciepe worked wonderfully, and it should be a formula that works again if Mr. Hess gets the right combination of tools to work with.
I say it should work again, because sadly, just like Nacho, this film falls flat on its rear several times.

Jack Black single-handedly attempts to carry this film from start to finish. From opening sequence to finish, he is rarely out of sight of the camera, and sadly, when he is, the film often falls flat on its face.

Jared does try to follow the same formula for success he found with Napoleon, choosing unique and bizarre looking characters, surrounding them by sometimes obscene and hilarious surroundings, trying to let what sits in front of the camera do most of the work for him.
For one reason or another, however, the film staggers across the finish line, dragging its feet behind itself.
There are numerous sequences which I laughed out loud at, but sadly, these parts were too few and far between to consider the film cohesive.

On another note, the writer's obsession with making Nacho fall in love with a nun is both alarming and against all logic. Nacho may want to be a wrestler, but would he really desire the love of a woman as well? Perhaps he didn't pay attention in any of the monastery classes. Either that or the Mormans have an axe to grind with the Catholic church.

Jack Black’s performance is memorable for many different reasons, and it will certainly go down among his funniest, but Nacho Libre will be shelved next to other films whose potential exceeded the product.

Grade: C


Music Review: Red Hot Chili Peppers: Stadium Arcadium

This is a little late in coming. The Peppers’ new album has been on the shelves for well over a month now, but I am only now getting around to talking about it. Why is that?

Well, it could be that the whole album is 28 songs long!
It has officially been released as a two-disc album, which of course means you have to pay more for it, which could very well translate to being more Chili Peppers than you ever thought you could’ve wanted.

The real reason that its taken me this long to mention it is simply that I didn’t feel ready to say anything about it. Due to the mystical forces of the internet, I did have this album in my iPod before it was released to the public. A few listen-throughs and I knew that this was going to require more attention than I have given other albums.

Most reviews of this album by real critics have largely been glowing. Not only citing a forward-looking, cutting-edge Chili Peppers, but because of its length, calling it a “milestone” and a “tantamount achievement.”

No offense, but most of this seems that someone's trying to blow sunshine up someone's......

I am a huge fan of the Chili Peppers’ more recent works, including Californication and By the Way, and have recently fallen in love with their earlier (and arguably finest) album, BloodSugarSexMagik.
The Chili Peppers blasted onto the scene in the 80's with a unique blend of funk, punk and rock sautted with just a pinch of hard metal. Their more recent works have shown a softer, more melodic side, showcasing frontman Anthony Keidis’ ear for tuneful melodies and heart-felt lyrics.

Stadium Arcadium is the Chili Peppers’ most important effort to marry their two personalities together, coupling songs that recall their early funk-rock years with their more recent style.
Being a real fan of their music, and with so much going on in this album, I had to be sure I gave as fair a review as I could.
Because my readers deserve nothing less. Awww...

The album is separated on two discs titled Venus and Mars. As I mentioned before, this album is the Chili Peppers’ most obvious and blatant attempt to have some sort of marriage between their songwriting styles.
The first single off of the album, Dani California,represents their older style, while potential future singles like Slow Cheetah or Torture Me showcase a milder, more contemplative style.

The lowdown: All of the songs on here are as interesting and intriguing as any the Chili Peppers have ever written.

The problem: With 28 songs, after a while, you just don’t care. Several songs could flash by before you finally come across something that actually catches your ear again.

I can honestly say that as stand-alone tracks, these are finely written, crafted and produced tracks, but I do wish the Chili Peppers had chosen another way of releasing this material. They could have followed System of a Down’s example, and released their material in two separate albums at two different times. (In contrast, both of the Peppers’ albums would be worth listening to.)
After having been in the game for so long, I think it would’ve been better to have a different strategy in seeing this material released. At two solid hours of music, perhaps even the Peppers should know when enough is enough.

Key Tracks: Dani California, Torture Me, Hard to Concentrate, Desecration Smile

The Inevitable Grade: Because of its length, Stadium takes a step down to a C+

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Movie Review: United 93

Seldom does a film that is required to say so little or so much say only exactly what it must.

The subject of this matter of this film was the subject of a previous post where we debated the need of this film, but mostly focused on the artistic merit of such a project.
I was fortunate enough to find myself in a theater that was still showing this film. I imagine the number of screens showing this film has shrunken to almost none by now, since it has been months since its initial release.
This film was written and directed by Englishman Paul Greengrass, and most of the production took place in London. For such a uniquely American story, it is frustrating that the work had to fall into the hands of an ally just to be done with dignity and clarity.
This film was shot using a great deal of hand-held camera shots. Popularized by documentary filmmakers, the practice has been adopted by studio pictures as a way of heightening reality. We are used to seeing grainy, wobbly news footage on CNN, and filmmakers do their best to recreate that sense of uncertainty using a very basic and primitive camera method. Sadly, this technique was really over-used, and I left the theater feeling nauseous just from the jerky camera.

I am pleased to report that this film is everything it should have been. Obviously a hot-button topic for a film, I was pleased to see that the story was the star of the show. All of the actors in the film were unknown, which was an essential choice to make, since any well-known actors would act in counterpoint to the story’s impact. This film’s greatest success is how it allows you to be a fly on the wall in all of the different locations affected that day. Whether it is the air traffic control room, where you hear the confused and chaotic chatter of a dozen controllers shouting commands, or the Air Force’s command center when orders and being hurled right and left, you are left to hear what you choose to hear, to pay attention to what you find intriguing. I think this is a large part of the film’s success, because it simply allows for us to watch the story unfold in as natural a re-creation as I could imagine.
The film wastes no time in throwing you into the middle of the action. The passengers are quickly boarded, and then shortly after that, air traffic controllers begin to lose contact with several airplanes. You watch helpless as the first two planes crash into the World Trade Center, angered and enraged at being unable to help. The pace of the film doesn’t let up until the very end. With mounting confusion we follow the actions taken by hundreds of air traffic controllers and military personnel as they seek to understand what is happening, and then seek to react to it. Numerous members of the cast were actually playing their real-life roles on the screen, which not only demonstrates their character, but also the urgency and importance of their decisions. It also made me feel encouraged to see these men and women so carefully tend to their duties even in the midst of an absolute chaos, they never forgot their jobs, and never abandoned their posts.

The story of the passengers aboard United 93 only emerges later in the film, after three of the planes had already hit their targets and the terrorists aboard United 93 finally made their move. It was inspiring and heart-wrenching to watch a group of men begin to organize and plan their assault on the cockpit, knowing full well that the chances of survival were slim. One by one any able-bodied man collected their minds and finally launched their assault up the narrow aisle, bodies tumbling and churning as the pilot dove and spun in effort to throw them off their feet. Finally though, as we all know, they made it to the cockpit, and the final seconds of the movie are an insane flurry of flesh and cloth as hands struggle for control of the aircraft; all the while, the sunny Pennsylvania landscape rushes towards the audience.

I believe this is a film all American should see. It is constantly chastised for being “too soon” and “insensitive” to those who mourn the loss of loved ones, but at a time when most Americans have seemingly already forgotten why we fight a war, this is an essential tool that we must use to remind those who would dismiss the evil against which we struggle.
I will buy this film on DVD the day it is released, and I will share it with as many as will watch it.
Overall Grade: A+


Movie Review: Cars
Starring: Owen Wilson, Paul Newman, John Ratzenberger, Larry the Cable Guy, Cheech Marin
Directed by: John Lasseter

Pixar’s first film under their new marriage with Disney has been anticipated since their last film was in theatres. In the dawning age of CGI garbage, Pixar has stood as a lone bastion of quality entertainment, innovated story-telling and above all: creativity.
The early reviews for Cars promised that the highest of expectations would be filled. Pixar had created yet another classic. I must admit, I was hoping it to be the case.

Cars is a technological triumph in and of itself. Now that every movie studio who seeks to make family films has converted to CGI animation, Pixar has had to raise the bar every film to prove why they remain the standard-bearer. Many of the lighting effects are stunning, and the dozens of different stages of dirt that gets caked onto the cars’ bodies would’ve made animators cringe even a few years ago.
Yet the measuring stick for Pixar is not only for their technological prowess, but also for their care of a great story line. Pixar films have been one of the few places where stories are the only reason a film is made. Films like Toy Story, Monsters Inc. and theIncredibles mix the fantastic with the mundane in such a real way that we can see the possibility in our own lives of the toys coming alive behind our backs, or that there really might be a monster in our closet. (Benevolent, of course.)
That being said, Pixar has raised the bar for so long that it begins to be an impossibility that they will continue to astound and amaze us. Sadly, Cars is a step back for Pixar.
Alike Bugs Life, I believe it will be a film worthy of the Pixar name, but overshadowed b those who came before and (hopefully) those who follow.

The story follows Lightning McQueen (Owens) a rookie race car who is poised to win the Piston Cup, the highest accomplishment for any race car. He seeks to take the crown away from the King, long-time veteran of the race track (voiced appropriately by Richard Petty.) However, en route to a tie-breaker race in California, Lightning is lost in the desert of Arizona where he accidentally destroys the main street of a little town called Radiator Springs. He then finds himself trapped there until he repairs the road. In the meanwhile, he not only falls in love with the tiny little town and its inhabitants, but also with a Porsche.

This film ultimately has a very uplifting and charming moral. The appeal and value of small-town life is far more important than getting somewhere fast. Aside from the friendships that Lightning makes with the residents, he also falls in love with the land and the history of the region. It is eventually learned that everything we think we need may be right under our noses the whole time.

The downfalls with this film lie in the very nature of its characters. Automobiles are often anthromorphic and are projected with various human characteristics, but even from the first preview I had certain reservations about all of the characters of this film being cars. I hoped that the film would change my mind, but I’m afraid I left feeling unsatisfied with the whole affair. I raced my Hot Wheels as a kid, and then had a fantastic crash. But I never made them talk to one another.
This point aside, I can’t say that this story has been their strongest. There are timeless elements to the story, but overall, I can’t say I feel this movie will achieve the same legendary status as their other films. I just don’t feel it’ll be as memorable.

One of the funniest moments in the film occurs when Lightning and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) go Tractor Tipping, a vehicled version of cow tipping. The other moment that really stands out is when John Ratzenberger’s character finally confronts the other several characters he has played in the other Pixar films.

Overall Grade: C+


Monday, June 12, 2006

CORVALLIS, Ore. — A main ingredient in beer may help prevent prostate cancer and enlargement, according to a new study. But researchers say don't rush out to stock the refrigerator because the ingredient is present in such small amounts that a person would have to drink more than 17 beers to benefit.

Oregon State University researchers say the compound xanthohumol, found in hops, inhibits a specific protein in the cells along the surface of the prostate gland.

The protein acts like a signal switch that turns on a variety of animal and human cancers, including prostate cancer.

Cancer typically results from uncontrolled cell reproduction and growth. Xanthohumol belongs to a group of plant compounds called flavonoids, which can trigger the programmed cell death that controls growth, researchers say.

Xanthohumol was first discovered in hops in 1913, but its health effects were not known until about 10 years ago, when it was first studied by Fred Stevens, assistant professor of medicinal chemistry at OSU's College of Pharmacy.

Last fall, Stevens published an update on xanthohumol in the journal Phytochemistry that drew international attention.

Stevens says it possible for drug companies to develop pills containing concentrated doses of the flavonoid found in the hops used to brew beer.

He also says researchers could work to increase the xanthohumol content of hops.

There are already a number of food supplements on the market containing hops, and scientists in Germany have developed a beer that contains 10 times the amount of xanthohumol as traditional brews. The drink is being marketed as a healthy beer, but research is still under way to determine if it has any effect against cancer.

The latest Oregon State University research was published in a recent issue of Cancer Letters.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

A New Record...Faster, Stronger...

Today I ran five miles in 39:40

Mile average: 7:56


I'm quite happy with this. My diet is stalling on me again, but we'll get it figured out.


Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Fitness Plan Week 7....

Progress Made:

Weight Lost: 21 lbs

Fastest Mile: 7:30 min

Fastest Average: 8:30 min

Fastest 1.5 Mile: 10:40 min

Average Rate: 9 min

Average Distance: 6-7 miles (5 in morning, another 1 to 2 in the evening)

Sit ups: 50 (one set)

Push-ups: 34 (one set)

Caloric Intake: 1200 - 1300 calories daily

The trick is proving to be to choose the most pure forms of fuel to put in, since I only get so many calories, what is going to give me the biggest bump in nutrition, energy and satisfaction? It's become something of a game. I don't crave too many junk foods any more. Average meals: 5-6 throughout the day, although its a bad idea to eat anything after 8 o'clock.

How will this change over the next few weeks as my routine is interrupted? I will simply have to find a new routine, and not make any compromises. Especially on the diet.

Tomorrow's my light work-out day. I'm going to help my friend move instead of going to the gym... Carrying a desk down seven flights of stairs should prove to be adequte.


P.S. Secret bonus: The veins running the length of my biceps are reappearing. I find it terribly exciting. Testosterone at all time highs.

Music Review: The Black Keys: Chulahoma EP: the songs of Junior Kimbrough
Junior Kimbrough was a bar owner in Mississippi and died in the 1970’s. In addition to fathering an enormous family, he was also a blues song-writer. This homage by the Black Keys features six of his songs.
I must confess that I had not previously heard of Junior Kimbrough, nor any of the songs that are featured on this EP. Being very familiar with the Black Keys’ signature sound, I was curious to see how the Keys took on another artists’ songs, since most of their work is original material written by guitarist/singer Dan Auerbach. It was pretty apparent that they had a deep respect for these songs, so it was interesting to see how carefully (or carelessly) they decided to handle these songs.
Knowing these songs would’ve originally been played on acoustic guitar and voice, the Black Key’s recipe of voice, electric guitar and drums would seem a drastic change. And indeed, it has taken several listen-throughs for me to become comfortable with the adaptation of their sound. The Keys’ original tunes usually are built around Pat Carney’s funkified drum stylings, so the scaled-back approach to his playing on this project was a little surprising. Indeed, if there is a weak point to this project, I would have to say it is the drum line, which at times I feel was a little tacked on. The other elements, (voice and guitar) were already written. The only truly concocted part of this project was the drum beats, and Pat Carney’s decision to play down his presence is understandable, but it is a sad misuse of his unique drum stylings.
The songs themselves are sprawling, relaxed and slow-paced. It is an easy picture to envision Junior sitting outside his bar in Mississippi singing these songs. Obviously Junior didn’t have anywhere to go real quickly, but the Keys’ interpretation adds a restrained intensity. In part to the drum’s insistence, but also Auerbach’s fingers seem reluctant to let go of any note, giving a great tension to the songs.
I would not consider this the Black Keys’ greatest work. In fact, I would put it last on the “need to own” list for the Keys’ works. But it is obviously a labor of love for the boys from Akron – a project that they felt very strongly about doing, and in honoring one of their favorite songwriters. And as the band's final release under their contract with Fat Possum records, it is a fitting swan song. The Black Keys have moved to Nonesuch and are opening for Radiohead in the next several months. Now there's a weird concert to go see...
Grade: B-