Wednesday, March 30, 2005

The Curious Case of the Stereophonics

A few years ago, back in the halcyon days of pure, unadulterated Napster, frustrated by the dearth of great rock ‘n roll made – or made known – in America, I discovered and became enamored with a Welsh band called the Stereophonics, who were – and remain – platinum-selling, stadium-filling superstars in Great Britain, yet virtually unknown in the United States.

My first exposure was to their second album -- Performance and Cocktails -- which I thought was great; not quite genius, but highly charged, hook laden rock 'n roll. I then explored their debut album -- Word Gets Around -- and found it to be just as good if not better than the second, with what still remain my two favorite Stereophonics songs: A Thousand Trees and Local Boy In The Photograph.

Those albums quickly became two of my favorites and I championed the band & introduced their music to anyone who might care. And I looked forward to each of their three subsequent albums in anticipation of not only more personally enjoyable music, but perhaps even tunes that would bring the stateside success that their first two albums warranted, but failed to capture.

But on both counts, five years and three albums later, I'm still waiting.

I won't go so far to call the three albums -- including the just released "Language.Sex.Violence.Other?" (instantly #1 in England but unworthy of the New Releases rack at Best Buy) -- awful. Through familiarity, live performances and appreciation of band leader Kelly Jones' ongoing attempt to find a new songwriting voice, I can find some merit in the material. And some of it has actually caught the fancy of acquaintances and U.S. critics.

But compared to the quality (and promise) of the first two albums, I have found all three of the most recent albums to be terribly dull and disappointing. If any of the three served as my introduction to the Stereophonics I doubt I would have been much smitten, and I really can't fully champion this band to others given their recent output.

Still, I plan to see the 'Phonics when they come to the Metro on May 9 -- just as one more example of their UK/US disparity: last summer, they headlined one day of the Isle of Wight Festival; the other two days were headlined by David Bowie and The Who --
and if anyone out there wants me to put together a Stereophonics compilation, I gladly will. Just don't expect more than 6 of the 20 or so songs to come from the last 3 albums.


Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Anything But 'Miserables'

Les Miserables - Cadillac Palace Theatre - Chicago

While it may not seem newsworthy, or even blogworthy, to extol praise upon Les Miserables, which has been one of the most popular, successful and acclaimed stage musicals for nearly 20 years, the fact is, there are other shows with similar pedigrees -- most notably Phantom of the Opera -- that fall far short of the enjoyment that Les Miz provided yesterday on the opening night of its latest run. I have seen the show twice before, most recently in 2002 with the same performer (Randal Keith) in the starring role of Jean Valjean, and even in the second to last row of the Cadillac Palace, on a night when I was plenty tired and a tad bit sick, I still found the show to be nothing short of superb. In addition to the impressive Keith, all of the singing was excellent.

Supposedly, this might be the show's last Broadway-level tour that brings it to Chicago. While it will likely always be around in some form, whether at the Marriott Theatre or a la Sweeny Todd a few years back, done as a Lyric Opera production, the scenery, orchestra & performances make this rendition one that any appreciator of musical theater simply should not 'Miz.'

Monday, March 14, 2005

Frightening Illini

Yesterday, I sourced out a relatively inexpensive ticket and attended the Big 10 Championship game between Illinois and Wisconsin at the United Center. Illinois won, but not particularly impressively, especially for the #1 team in the country. Though they built up a sizable lead, largely through an incredible defensive effort, toward the end they looked like a boxer just trying to hang on, as Wisconsin cut it to a 5 point game, and had good looks at shots that could have gotten it even closer. Fortunately for the Illini and the sea of orange in the UC crowd, Wisconsin couldn't convert when it needed to, and UofI walked off with the win, their #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament firmly in hand.

Certainly some slack could, and should, be cut the Illini if their subpar performance through the Big 10 tourney had something tangibly or intangibly with the tragic death of Coach Bruce Weber's mother on Friday (after she had arrived at the UC for the game, she was taken to the hospital with chest pains, and died during surgery to repair her aorta). But even prior to this weekend, the Illini has appeared a far cry from the team that blew out Wake Forest, Gonzaga and Cincinnati early in the season. Their shooting is hit or miss, their inside game isn't dominant and though they have 5 excellent players, they don't have one outright superstar and that could be a problem.

Today, I filled out a NCAA tournament bracket and wound up with Illinois winning. If they play their best, this really should be a reality. But it also wouldn't be too shocking for them to lose anywhere after the first round. If someone were to offer me a straight up bet of Illinois or the other 64 teams in the field, I don't think I'd put my money on the Illini. Though I must note that there isn't any other team I'm as familiar with as the Illini -- in terms of players, strengths and weaknesses. And other "powerhouses" like North Carolina, Wake Forest, Kentucky and Kansas all lost during their conference tournaments; Illinois didn't.

So, we'll watch and see. Let the madness begin.

Monday, March 07, 2005

An Interesting Disappointment (movie review)

The Jacket

Seen on a day that didn't require one, The Jacket was not a great movie. I can't even say it was a good movie. But in spite a confounded plotline that aimed high yet ultimately failed to truly hit the mark, or rise above its confusion, it was a more interesting, watchable, thought provoking and well-crafted & acted film than many "good movies." I won't try to explain the plot, which combines psychotic reactions, psychic visions, time travel and/or other supernatural elements that I can best reference as Memento and It's A Wonderful Life put in a Cuisinart and lightly seasoned with a touch of The Deer Hunter (or some other traumatic post-war movie). As I said, it aimed high, but didn't quite work, despite completely engaging performances by the intensely engrossing Adrien Brody and the luminous Keira Knightley. While I don't wholeheartedly recommend that you see it (though in a cheap show or on video, it's probably worth a look), I feel safe in assuming that despite its paltry $2.7 opening weekend box office take, it is eminently more worthwhile than The Pacifier, which somehow opened with $30 million.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Pretty Austentatious

Bride & Prejudice

With good friends who are east Indian and a fondness of Indian food, I am appreciative of and somewhat interested in Indian culture (i.e., "the ways of living built up by a human group"). This has inspired some curiosity in, but as yet not particular enjoyment of, Indian culture (i.e., "artistic and intellectual pursuits and products"). In essence, this means that I have found the 2-3 true Bollywood movies I have seen to be overlong, overwrought, over-the-top and overly simplistic. The plots are always essentially the same -- beautiful Indian girl is destined for a rich jerk but longs for the charming peasant -- and if you think Broadway musicals (which I readily enjoy) feature a lot of weirdly exuberant singing and dancing, well, Bollywood movies, the preponderance of are 4 hour musicals, make most Broadway musicals seem low-key & high-drama in comparison.

To each their own, of course, and if millions of people in India and around the world love Bollywood movies, made with a profusion that dwarfs Hollywood's output, it certainly is no big deal, literally to anyone, if I don't.

Lately, however, for understandable economic, demographic and even well-intentioned artistic reasons, there have been some high-profile attempts to merge Bollywood with Westernized entertainment. Namely: 1) Bombay Dreams, a musical which played in London & Broadway to mixed reviews and supbar box-office. I saw it on Broadway, appreciated the attempt, but found it disappointing and 2) Bride & Prejudice, a new Bollywood meets Hollywood movie musical directed by Gurinder Chadha, a British Indian who made the excellent Bend It Like Beckham. Loosely based on Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice, which I never read, it too was valuable for further exposing me to Indian culture -- and particularly the stunningly beautiful Aishwarya Raj, Bollywood's biggest star, who both Roger Ebert & Julia Roberts have not inaccurately called the most beautiful woman in the world -- but in sum, it too was disappointing.

In the big picture, the meshing of Bollywood/Hollywood just doesn't seem to work. It's not like there aren't thousands of real Bollywood movies out there; if you like 'em, see 'em. Or don't. But it's not like watering Indian moviemaking down to play to the suburban cineplexes creates something better.

In the small picture, or this exact one, due to Raj, Bride & Prejudice was watchable, but her American love interest was played by a handsome but eminently dim & dull Australian actor named Martin Henderson. He singlehandedly ruined whatever chance this movie had to be truly good. As the formulaic Bollywood plotline desribed above sounds much like nearly every John Cusack movie ever made, I think he could've been a whole lot better in the role of Will Darcy. At least he has some humorous, almost roguish charm, that while not making Bride & Prejudice anything wonderful at least would have made it a better popcorn movie.

Supposedly, Aishwarya Raj is slated for roles in Hollywood-made movies and that should only be a good thing. While the red states may not tolerate a Hindu movie starlet in American roles, at least within the blue states she seems to have the aura to become a somewhat exotic, modern day Audrey Hepburn-type star.

Some movies are worth seeing, not because they're good, but just because they're worth knowing a bit more about. Bride & Prejudice falls into that category, but you can surely wait until it hits video.