Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A QUESTION OF TIME

They say time flies when you're having fun, but this is getting to be ridiculous. Since I moved to Buenos Aires, time seems to be in a perpetual race -- a never-ending 50-yard dash -- with Superman. Faster than a speeding bullet? Greasy kids' stuff. Time is playing to win.

I'm not just referring to the fact that I've been living abroad for more than 27 months, and it only feels like half that. I'm talking on a much smaller scale. I'll settle in for my afternoon siesta at 1pm, and before I know it, four hours have taken off, reached a comfortable cruising altitude and just flown by. And I rarely even spend more than half of the flight actually sleeping! No wonder bar owners in BA set up their happy hour (or "after office" as they call it there) to last twice as long as it does in New York.

It's not just my down time that seems to be smashing every acceleration record known to man. Last week, I spent several days doing some freelance editing for Time Out Buenos Aires in their downtown offices and at home. I had so much work to do, and I didn't want to spend all day doing it, so although I was being paid by the hour, I prayed for time to go by as slowly as possible. But God must have been lounging by the pool or stuffing His face at one of those asados that are so in vogue this time of year in BA. I'd sit down to start editing, blink, and several hours already had gone by -- and I still wouldn't be halfway done!

It's the same when I'm writing this very blog. I guess I shouldn't be totally surprised: The tired aforementioned cliché does say that time flies when you're having fun, and I find all of the above -- from the tossing and turning through half of my siesta to the editing and writing while sort of wishing I were taking a siesta -- to be great fun. But it wasn't always so. In fact, my last few years in New York, when writing and editing had ceased to be sources of pleasure and an afternoon nap was just another reason to feel guilty, it was rarely that way. No matter how busy I was or how much work I had to do, on days when we weren't closing an issue and therefore could go home before all the work was done, I'd always find time to check my watch to see when the drudgery would end.

"Time will crawl," David Bowie sang on his underrated (even by him) 1987 CD, Never Let Me Down. And it did. As an aside, I remember that particular album being hailed as a return to form when it was released, and I agreed. But years ago, when I interviewed David Bowie, he basically dismissed it, along with 1984's Tonight and 1983's Let's Dance, as crap. I don't recall his exact words, but he said he was basically a singer for hire during most of the 1980s, showing up in the studio for the money. I didn't agree with his assessment of at least two of the albums (guess which two), but boy, did he have a point when he sang, "Time will crawl." Whenever I was doing something I wasn't 100% into (which was more often than not), it barely kept up with the snails. (Editor's note: I'm not talking Time with a capital T here -- weeks, months and years fly by and always have. I'm talking about moment-to-moment time.)

Fast forward -- or rather, slow forward -- to 2006. "Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Turn and face the strain. Ch-ch-changes," Bowie had sung many years earlier, well before his hack period. Double checking the lyrics on the internet, I just realized that there's a faction that thinks he was actually singing, "Turn and face the strange." If I ever interview him again, I'll have to ask. But whichever one it is, that's exactly what I had to do when time stopped crawling and permanently picked up the pace.

But my clockwatching continued, continues -- only now I'm wishing the hour, minute and second hands would slow down rather than speed up. It's returned in full force these last few days when I'm online in my hotel room in Lima because Wi-Fi access arrives via a username and password that last exactly 300 minutes. I've already gone through at least four of them, and I don't think I've spent that much time online. Have I? Who knows why this system is in place (even on the community computer in the lobby, which, incidentally, has been out of service since I arrived), but I'm secretly looking forward to having 24/7 Wi-Fi in Bogota without constantly having a clock in the bottom border of my computer screen counting down, reminding me that time -- and my life -- is whizzing by.

Right now it's five minutes to 6pm, and I'm wondering, How could that be? Wasn't it 6am just a few minutes ago? Kylie was right, too, when she sang, "Time will pass you by." Today, it has. Right on by. On an express train to nowhere fast with zero stops to smell the roses. Too bad it won't settle down and take a minute or two to consider the plan laid out by Kylie on her later hit, "Slow." It's not as if I've passed this decidedly un-manic Monday Monday in a whir of activity. In fact, I've been more immobile today than I've been in weeks. But time doesn't seem to give a damn. All he (or she) wants to do is outspeed Superman.

Speaking of the man of steel, Smallville is on. I'm not a fan, but I'm too lazy to reach for the remote control in my hotel room and find something else to provide the background noise. No worries. Time may take a licking, but it keeps on ticking (as is that stupid Wi-Fi countdown clock below) and still kicking Superman's butt (as is Lex Luthor in this particular episode...ouch!). That may not be good news for the final four months and one week of my thirties, but at least it means that Smallville won't be on for long. The next hour is guaranteed to go by just like that.

Monday, December 29, 2008

BLACK LIKE ME

The critics have spoken, and now so will I. Here is my updated list of predicted nominees in the major categories for the 2009 Oscars. Look for my final update after the Golden Globes. Envelope! Drum roll! Actors and actresses, please take a bow!

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE
Clint Eastwood Gran Torino
Richard Jenkins The Visitor
Frank Langella Frost/Nixon
Sean Penn Milk
Brad Pitt The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke The Wrestler

Don't worry, I can count. I'm just having a bit of trouble narrowing this very difficult category down to five. Leonardo DiCaprio, once such a seemingly sure thing for Revolutionary Road, is out. Sean and Mickey are locks, and Frank, who would be the second actor nominated for playing the disgraced 37th U.S. president despite not bearing the slightest resemblance to him, is more or less a sure thing. Brad is slightly shakier but pretty likely. The final nod will go to either Richard or Clint, whose stellar work in Gran Torino has the feel of a swan song. My money's on the latter sneaking in Tommy Lee Jones-in-2008 style, since it will probably be the last time the Academy has the opportunity to reward him for acting.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE
Anne Hathaway Rachel Getting Married Will the Academy be able to resist nominating both Devil Wears Prada leads in the same year? I seriously doubt (pun intended) it.
Sally Hawkins Happy Go Lucky This year's Imelda Staunton, nothing more, nothing less.
Melissa Leo Frozen River My expectations for her have been great since July.
Meryl Streep Doubt Judging from the trailer, she overdoes the bitch-nun-on-wheels thing a tad, but if she's going to ever score another best actress trophy, this is her best shot yet.
Kate Winslet Revolutionary Road The one everyone thinks will take it. It could happen, but it would probably be a lifetime achievement award at the tender old age of 33.

The Changeling's Angelina Jolie could easily sweep in and take Anne or Melissa's place (most likely Melissa's). But as we saw last year with A Mighty Heart, getting noticed by all the right precursors doesn't necessarily translate into a nomination -- especially with several other notable leading ladies (I've Loved You For So Long's Kristin Scott Thomas and Nothing But The Truth's Kate Beckinsale) waiting in the wings to become this year's surprise nominee a la 2008's Laura Linney (The Savages).

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Heath Ledger The Dark Knight The Academy probably won't be able to resist giving its first posthumous Oscar since Network's dead as a doornail Peter Finch went all the way in 1977, but I think a Robert Downey Jr. win (see above and below) would make for a much better TV moment.
Josh Brolin Milk The character lacks notable screen time or any perceivable character arc, but Josh makes the most of what he's given, and let's face it: After two great years and counting, the Academy owes him at least a nod.
Robert Downey Jr. Tropic Thunder I didn't really get the film, but so what? Not only does he nail the role of a black man of a certain age and a certain ego level, but when the blackface comes off, he does the same with his actual character, an Aussie Russell Crowe-like quadruple Oscar winner.
Philip Seymour Hoffman Doubt These days he gets a nod just for showing up on the set, and in another weak year for supporting guys, he's a practical shoo-in.
Dev Patel Slumdog Millionaire

Revolutionary Road's Michael Shannon and Frost/Nixon's Michael Sheen both have shots, but the unknown from Slumdog Millionaire should end up being the token nominee from that Best Picture co-frontrunner.

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE
Penelope Cruz Vicki Cristina Barcelona With no real emotional meat to chew on, Penelope turned in a performance that was more enjoyable than impressive, but it's the kind of colorful, over-the-top role that wins Woody Allen actresses Oscars in this category.
Viola Davis Doubt Six minutes of screen time doesn't necessarily a nominee make -- or break. Look what happened last year with Ruby Dee.
Rosemarie Dewitt Rachel Getting Married I'd still prefer to see the Academy give Debra Winger one more chance to finally get her due, but Rosemarie is the Rachel supporting player that's getting all the love from the precursors. P.S. As for the actual ceremony, I smell another supporting actress upset, and her name is Rosemarie Dewitt.
Taraji P. Henson The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button Perhaps the shakiest of the nominees, as most of the acclaim is for the film and not the actors, so if she doesn't make it in, look for Doubt's Amy Adams to steal her spot.
Marisa Tomei The Wrestler My fingers are so crossed for her to go all the way. Again.

BEST PICTURE
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button
Doubt
Milk

Slumdog Millionaire

The Wrestler


Frost/Nixon could sneak in and take Doubt's place. The Reader has an outside chance, but it's looking more and more outside the realm of probability.

BEST ACHIEVEMENT IN DIRECTING
Daron Aronofsky The Wrestler Both he and David Fincher (see below) are due for their first nominations.
Danny Boyle Slumdog Millionaire My prediction: It'll probably end up being a Danny Boyle vs. David Fincher showdown.
David Fincher
The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button See above.
Gus Van Sant Milk He's no lock, but my guess is that he can start thinking about a tux, if not an acceptance speech.
Mike Leigh Happy Go Lucky One director of a non-nominated film usually makes it in, and it will probably be the guy who directed the most lauded female performance of the year.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

A CHRISTMAS CAROL

Here I am again. In Lima, Peru. I was last here in January, and I'm happy to report that nothing has changed, not even my hotel. I love this city -- much more than I expected to before my first visit. Interestingly, the other day I was talking to this guy who was explaining to me how he dislikes being outside of the big city. For instance, he continued, "I have no interest in going to Peru." Too bad. He doesn't know what he's missing. Not only is Machu Picchu the most incredible place I've ever seen in real life, but Lima is not exactly the countryside.

It's actually the desert (a fact that confounds me since it borders the Pacific Ocean, and I've always thought of deserts as being landlocked and completely water-free). It never rains here. I read somwhere that many people who live in Lima have never even owned an umbrella. Last night, I met this guy named Mirko who is half Peruvian and half Croatian (a good physical combination, by the way). This afternoon at lunch, I couldn't help myself and asked, "Have you ever seen the rain?" Gotta love Credence Clearwater Revival! He didn't get the joke, but he quickly informed me that, yes, he has seen the rain, having travelled outside of his home country on several occasions.

Tuesday I'm meeting my friend Jeffrey at the airport, and we are flying to Bogota, Colombia, for his birthday, which happens to be on New Year's Eve. He's already been there three times. It'll be my first trip there, but I have a good feeling about it, and not just because Jeffrey gives it two thumbs up. I've met several Colombians in Buenos Aires, and not only are they attractive people, but they are friendly and polished as well.

Case in point: On Christmas Eve, after having dinner with Hollie, Cara and Mariem (that's us in the above photo), I went with my friend Luciano to Heaven, my new favorite club in BA. There, a guy came up to me and told me that he lives in my building. "Really?" I asked. "I don't think so." He was cute, so how could I have missed him. He then proceeded to give me the address, crushing all my doubt. I cringed at the thought of how I must have looked when he had seen me in the building. Hopefully, it wasn't post- or pre-workout, when I'm never at my best. Or on the way to or from the supermercado across the street. I clean up pretty well, but unfortunately, I don't always bother to clean up before leaving my apartment.

Anyway, the guy was on his way out, so we didn't get to talk much. The next day, I kept thinking about him (the one who got away -- or rather, walked away), contemplating whether I should go down and slip a note under the door of 2C, his apartment. I decided to check my Manhunt account instead and see if I had any messages. Maybe he was on Manhunt and had found my profile and sent me a message. Surprise! That's exactly what he had done. We talked a bit, and I found out that he was half Lebanese (on his dad's side) and half Colombian (on his mom's side). He had even lived four years in Bogota. Ah, kismet! I said to myself. What are the chances? Not only did I have to go to a disco to meet a neighbor who had been living in my building for five months, but he was also from the very country I was going to be visiting in less than a week. A lesser coincidence: I had been invited to Heaven the previous night by a bigwig at Manhunt and was on the Manhunt guest list. (To Manhunt: Thanks for everything. All is forgiven.)

He invited me down to his apartment for a little vino. I was still preparing for my early flight to Lima the next morning, but when he told me that he was going to be moving out of the building on January 1 and into a cheaper apartment close by, I thought to myself, This might be my only chance (regular readers of this blog know that formal dates rarely go in my favor), and I might as well get on that plane tomorrow wearing a great big smile. We spent about an hour or so chatting about our lives and not drinking vino (I never imbibe on the night before travelling), and he wrote me a list of places to go to in Bogota. He complimented my Spanish several times, which earned him major brownie points. We hugged each other at the door twice before I left. Disappointed, I took the elevator upstairs to my apartment and found myself wishing and hoping that there'd be an IM waiting for me, inviting me back down for a goodnight kiss.

It must have been my lucky day! "Casi te doy un besito en la puerta," said the message from Abdala (his name) when I returned to my computer. "¿Debería volver a tu departamento para recibirlo?" I responded. ¡Claro! Should I stay or should I go? I asked myself. I think we all know how -- and where -- this story ends.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Friday, December 19, 2008

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION


I just got Milk--or rather, I drank it down in one big gulp. It didn't blow me away as it has the majority of the critics, but there were three particular things (listed below) that I really admired about the film. I saw it with my Irish friend Cillian, who was not fully aware of the history of homophobia and gay activism in the U.S. It was interesting to see his somewhat bemused reaction to things that I'm accustomed to, having lived most of my life in a country full of homophobic Bible thumpers.

  1. SEAN PENN I feel as if the actor really connected to the role of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to a major political office in the U.S., in this case the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It's a baity role (I'm surprised some great scenery chewer like Al Pacino or Dustin Hoffman didn't tackle it in the early '80s), and I was impressed that Sean never once went over the top or lapsed into that moody, brooding thing he's been doing ever since Fast Times At Ridgemont High. The only scene that rang slightly false to me was when he was crying over the suicide of his second lover of the film (Diego Luna). Not only did Harvey never seem fully invested in the relationship (see my comment below), but as an actor, Sean doesn't really do tears (in fact, I didn't see any at all, despite all of his sobbing). I kept thinking back to his fake crying during the execution scene in Dead Man Walking. But so what? I predict a trip to the podium to collect his second Oscar in February.
  2. JAMES FRANCO How do I love he?... The scene where Harvey met his lover-to-be Scott Smith (played by James) on a New York City subway staircase is one of the most authentic boy-meets-boy scenarios I can remember seeing in a film. Oh, the chemistry! Josh Brolin is getting most of the critical love for his portrayal of Milk assassin Dan White, but that character spent too much of the film on the periphery, brought into focus now and then as a foreboding gesture. Josh did bring a degree of humanity to the role, but it's not as if the character was written as an out-of-control homophobe. (That said, you can count on him scoring a make-up Oscar nod for Best Performance By An Actor In A Supporting Role for having had such a great year and for being snubbed after having an even better 2007 with a lead performance in No Country For Old Men and supporting ones in American Gangster and In The Valley Of Elah.) I wish Milk director Gus Van Sant had spent a little more time exploring Harvey's personal life (the break-up with Smith seems to have happened offscreen!), which I found to be as intriguing as his political one. The implication was that he put career over love, but aside from a few perfunctory scenes illustrating this point, it was never fully explored.
  3. ANITA BRYANT Can someone shown only in archival footage get an Oscar nod? What an actress! I never knew much about Anita Bryant other than that she was a '50s beauty queen who sang silly love songs in the '60s and morphed into the '70s poster girl for orange juice and homophobia. She was and is a dragon lady, for sure, but I found myself intrigued and fascinated by her creepy self-composure and artificial smile. Best supporting actress candidates, meet your match?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

THE WAITING GAME

I spend too much of my life waiting. I attract jerks (don't we all?), actors (great pretenders, yes, but also actual thespians) and people who are chronically late. In fact, as I type, I'm waiting for my friend Daniel, who just informed me that he will be 15 minutes late.

My friend Lori in New York--well, she actually lives in Weehawken, New Jersey, in an apartment with a beautiful view of the Manhattan skyline--fits firmly into the latter category. She's the queen of tardy people. She once admitted to me that sometimes when she calls to say she's on her way, she's actually just getting into the shower. Considering that she lives in New Jersey, and we would usually meet in Manhattan, you can imagine the hours of my life lost waiting on her.

Luckily for Lori, she's such good company when she finally shows up that her tardiness has become part of her charm. Her friends bitch and gripe, but we all put up with it. Maybe I'm going slightly overboard here, but I miss her, and because her poor sense of time is such a huge part of who she is, I guess in some perverse way, I must miss that too. (Interestingly, Lori once set me up on a blind date with her hairdresser, an Argentine who showed up more than one hour late!)

Then there is my friend Jeffrey, who lives part time in Buenos Aires and part time in St. Louis. Since his most recent return to BA about a week and a half ago, he's been late exactly three times. On Saturday night, we were supposed to meet at a restaurant at 11 p.m., and with his previous two late-shows in mind, I imposed my 20-minute rule, which forbids me from waiting more than 20 minutes for anyone. At 11:20, still no Jeffrey, so I split. A few minutes later, he called wondering where I was. After several heartfelt apologies, he explained that he couldn't find a taxi to the restaurant, ended up having to walk there, and when the hostess told him that I had left, he went all the way home to get my number so that he could call me and explain. Now that's what I call dedication. We met up, after all, and I'm glad we did. The night ended up being one to remember (though thanks to too much wine and beer, I kind of don't).

I love Lori and Jeffrey to death, so their lateness, while annoying, is tolerable. But not Fabian's. Last night I had a date with him at 9 p.m. The plan was that he would meet me at my apartment and then we would go out to dinner. I got dressed and waited. And waited. And waited. No Fabian. No phone call. At 10 p.m., I undressed, slipped into something more comfortable and got ready to order from my favorite delivery place.

Otra noche, otra vez dejado plantando. (Another night, another time stood up.) Been there, been done that to so many times that it barely fazes me. I was disappointed mostly because Fabian has great taste in music--loves Morrissey, Pulp, Blur, Oasis all the Britpop greats from my mid-twenties--which is a quality that is so hard to find in totally addicted-to-bass gay men. At 10:10, just as I started to dial for delivery, Fabian rang my buzzer. I went downstairs and listened to his flimsy excuse. If he had bothered calling to warn me that he was running late, I may have been moved by his act of contrition. The way I see it, if he couldn't be bothered to show up on time for our first date, where were we supposed to go from there.

Nowhere. I made it very clear that he should leave, and he did. The date was a bust before it even began. I can't even use tonight as ammunition in my love-hate relationship with porteños, who are known for being chronically late, because Fabian is from Chile. Come to think of it, when I visited Santiago in May, I ditched two guys two nights in a row for showing up more than 45 minutes late. Fabian sent me a message later apologizing again, which was a nice gesture, but the damage had been done.

And, like Amy Winehouse sang, I wake up alone.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

SMALL TALK AND SIMPLE MINDS

"Words are useless. Especially sentences."
-- Madonna, "Bedtime Story"

Bjork, who wrote that song for Madonna's 1994 opus, Bedtime Stories, may have had a point. Check out this MSN conversation I had last weekend with a new casual acquaintance (who shall now be referred to as NCA).

NCA: Hello, Dolly! [I know, cute.]
Me: Hello!
NCA: What's up?
Me: Not much.

I guess my stock response to "What's up?", which pretty much everyone I know uses unless something's actually, well, up, wasn't good enough? Or maybe this Brazilian who had previously proven himself to be quite fluent in English didn't fully understand what he was asking--or what he was saying afterwards. At any rate, NCA then made some snarky comeback about how he supposed that I was in another mood. (I had been less than chatty the previous day, due to a migraine from hell that sent me to bed well before nightfall.) When I called him on his passive-aggression, he launched into a diatribe about my attitude and how I don't know him well enough to label his behavior passive-aggressive. I remained uncharacteristically calm. Maybe it was my still-pounding head. Or perhaps the fact that I didn't care that much what he thought of me.

But I didn't keep my opinion to myself. Not only was his behavior making me not want to know him any better, but since when does one have to be bosom buddies with someone to recognize their passive-aggressive behavior? Furthermore, who knew that "What's up?" was a cue to initiate a deep, meaningful discourse on the meaning of life? In the immortal words of New Radicals, you get what you give, and does such an inane cipher of a question deserve anything better than "Not much"?

The funny thing is that back in college, my friend Dave and I used to make fun of certain people we knew who when under the influence of certain drugs--and sometimes when not--could never contribute anything more to conversations that those two unmagical words, "What's up?", which they repeated ad nauseum even after recieving an answer. Today, it's just as annoying a conversation-starter, and the Spanish equivalent, "¿Qué contás?", and its only slightly less-eyeball-roll-inducing cousin, "¿Qué hacías?", don't exactly inspire much from me along the lines of a meaningful response.

My bottom line, which I shared with NCA: People resort to these "buzz" questions because they really don't have anything to say, so they put all the pressure on you. NCA and I eventually straightened out our differences, but I don't expect to hear from him anytime soon, which suits me just fine.

In case you were wondering, NCA is only 20, but to prove that poor communication skills is not wasted on the young, here is a story involving another new casual acquaintance (NCA II), age 38, a fellow New Yorker expatriate. Friday afternoon, NCA II invited me to Heaven, a new BA club about which I am writing for Time Out Buenos Aires and promised to introduce me to Germán, a PR bigwig there who would give me a tour of the place and the full-on VIP treatment. Our appointed meeting time: 2am. I showed up promptly--incidentally, with NCA. To NCA II's credit, I was on Germán's guest list. But two hours later, there still was no sign of NCA II. I left with John, my friend from New York whom I had randomly run into at Glam the night before, and went to Amerika. (NCA stayed behind at Heaven.) So much for the tour and the VIP thing. I'd have to use my imagination when it came time to write. But I did wonder what had happened to NCA II. Was it something I said?

Apparently, not. On Tuesday, NCA II sent me an instant message asking if I ever ended up going to Heaven. Before I could ask where he had been, he apologized for not making it. He said he had been invited at the last minute to spend the weekend out in the country, which, I suppose, precluded him from phoning me or sending me an IM or a text message letting me know that he wouldn't be going. I appreciated his apology but not enough to forgive the fact that he didn't seem to realize how spectacularly inconsiderate his negligence had been. I never called him on it because, you know, I'm kind of over calling people on their rudeness. Thanks, NCA!

But it's nice to know that it's not just porteños who have frequent lapses of social etiquette. (I'm still waiting for AC servicio técnico, which was supposed to arrive last Friday morning between 10 and noon to look into why my unit is making so much noise and have neither shown up nor called.) Small talk, simple minds and chronic bad behavior are international maladies for which, at the moment, there seems to be no cure.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

SONGS OF MASS DEVOTION

They don't make albums like they used to. Every year it becomes increasingly harder for me to come up with 10 CDs that I can to listen to all the way through. The superstar CD, in particular, has basically morphed from a creative statement (on a good day) into a marketing tool that can be padded--with iTunes originals, deluxe-edition bonus tracks and various assorted extras--at money-grubbing whim. The past 12 months continued the trend in a major way. Though a few releases hold up front to back--Cyndi Lauper's Bring Ya To The Brink, Duffy's Rockferry (in pre- and post-"deluxe edition" form) and Coldplay's Viva La Vida come immediately to mind--for the most part, singles, album tracks and isolated TV and concert moments tended to satisfy my cravings for ace tunes this past year. Here, in alphabetical order (by artist) and with only one entry per act, are 20 of my favorites from 2008.

  1. Adele: "To Make You Feel My Love" At last, umpteen covers of the 11-year-old Bob Dylan tune later, one that I can fall in love with.
  2. Beyoncé: "Diva" If getting hitched to Jay-Z didn't do the trick, this finally should complete Beyoncé's journey to street cred.
  3. Britney Spears: "Mannequin" Circus' least affected moment. Just when Britney stops trying to prove something, she does.
  4. Bryn Christopher's "The Quest" A beautiful discovery during the closing scene of Grey's Anatomy's season-four finale.
  5. Coldplay: "Lost!" As good as "Viva La Vida"! And this one rocks and rolls without a hint of pretentiousness.
  6. Cyndi Lauper: "Lay Me Down" The best track from a smart dance album that went over the heads of U.S. music fans way too obsessed with shallow hip hop and R&B.
  7. David Cook: "Always Be My Baby" A sappy Mariah Carey ballad re-imagined as a creepy, grungey stalker manifesto on American Idol, of all places.
  8. Duffy: "Stepping Stone" Best Performance By A Female Singer In A Leading Video Role.
  9. Fantasia: "Bore Me (Yawn)" Her love-it-or-hate-it way-over-the-top performance of the Fantasia track on the pre-finale episode of American Idol 2008 was one of the series' most interesting musical numbers since Fantasia's own star-making season-three rendition of "Summertime."
  10. Goldfrapp: "A&E" The Hercules and Love Affair remix transformed three minutes of mellow mood music into seven minutes of disco nirvana.
  11. Hot Chip: "Don't Dance" Trying to heed the titular command is futile. Go ahead, dance.
  12. Keane: "The Lovers Are Losing" The band's native UK shrugged big time, but here in Buenos Aires, I've heard it blaring from the loudspeakers of at least two supermercados. Who said porteños don't know a great pop-rock anthem when they hear one?
  13. Kylie Minogue: "Like A Drug" The high point of her Buenos Aires show performed almost entirely in a box.
  14. Leona Lewis: "Run" I spent most of the year scratching my head over Leona mania until I heard her transform an old Snow Patrol track into an elegant, sweeping power ballad. She's still not the best thing since sliced bread, but the song reminds me of why I used to love Celine.
  15. Leona Naess: "Leave Your Boyfriends" Still under-appreciated, still under-promoted and still one of the best female singer-songwriters in the business. (See video below. What, were you expecting a clichéd Sex And The City-style girls night out from uncompromising Leona?)
  16. Madonna: "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" Hard Candy's sweetest drop. Anyone who paid attention to this and to "Miles Away" saw the Madonna/Guy Ritchie split coming from, um, miles away.
  17. Mariah Carey: "Side Effects" E=MC2's money moment. Not releasing it as a single probably cost Mimi multi-platinum sales.
  18. M.I.A.: "Paper Planes" Thanks to its prominent inclusion in the trailer for the stoner flick Pineapple Express, a hard-to-market star was born.
  19. Natasha Bedingfield Ft. Sean Kingston: "Love Like This" Oh, brother (that means you, Daniel), where art thou?
  20. Sugababes: "Girls" The critics carped and dismissed it, as did the fans who sent the first singles from their last four albums to No. 1 in the UK. (It only managed a No. 3 peak.) Hey, guys, not every great song has to have a swinging '60s beat.

video

Sunday, December 7, 2008

SHE HAD ME AT "HALO"

I'm going to level with you: I've never really gotten Beyoncé Knowles. Although the occasional Beyoncé solo single has caught my ear ("Check On It" comes immediately to mind), I've always found her music to be a little too frenetic and her singing a tad too uncontrolled for my liking. And when she released the first two singles, "If I Were A Boy" and "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)," from her third solo CD, I Am...Sasha Fierce, I was first in line to bash them.

But something happened on my way to dismissing I Am...Sasha Fierce out of hand without even a cursory listen. "Single Ladies" started to grow on me. So despite my misgivings about the whole Sasha Fierce alter-ego concept, I tuned in. And suprise surprise, I quite like it. The official 41:46 version, that is, the one without the mostly unnecessary iTunes bonus tracks. I still think the Sasha Fierce thing is awkward; it's a marketing ploy that does the music no favors. As Garth Brooks' Chris Gaines period proved, alter egos do not belong on pop albums.

Once "If I Were A Boy" is out of the way, "Halo," a gorgeous backbeat-driven ballad that makes me want to run out and fall in love, announces a new and improved Beyoncé. She's still a capital-S singer with pyromaniac tendencies, but for the most part, the ballads that make up the I Am portion of the disc present her in a kinder, gentler and more nuanced light. "Ave Maria" (which incorporates elements of the aria without remaking it) and "Satellite," two acoustic tracks stripped down to the bare emotional essentials, are my favorites. Normally, I'm no fan of slow-jam R&B and to these ears, Beyonce's previous ballads have been a bit dull and shapeless, but she manages to grab my attention and hold it all the way through I Am.

Then Sasha Fierce makes her grand entrance and gets the party started with "Single Ladies," a by-the-hook Beyoncé jam that's nonetheless as infectious as anything that's hit the airwaves this year. But it's the risks that dancing queen Sasha takes that really elevate the proceedings. The stuttering hip-hop swagger of "Diva" is as fresh as the title isn't; it's easily the most inventive, left-of-center thing Beyoncé has ever done. Sasha never recaptures that edgy high, but when she exits stage left, she leaves you wanting more--more Sasha, more Beyoncé, more I Am...Sasha Fierce.

video

Friday, December 5, 2008

IT TAKES TWO TO TANGO

I'm not a very good porteño. In fact, I'm a downright disgrace. Any self-respecting Buenos Aires citizen--native or transplanted--has three great loves (hold on, I'll get to them in a second), and in my case, I can take or leave, preferably leave, each one. I don't eat meat. I'm indifferent to wine. And tango leaves me stone cold. But there's hope. My friend Luciano recently told me that one doesn't officially become a porteño until he or she has lived in BA for at least five years. So I have 33 1/2 months left to adapt my both my taste buds and my ear drums.

Wednesday night I took a baby step and attended my first milonga. For those not in the know, a milonga is like a tango disco. Every week a series of revolving parties feature in a designated space, and Wednesdays at La Marshall in the Microcentro is Mano a Mano's gay and lesbian night. I must confess that I didn't make the long trip downtown on my own accord but rather for a story I'm doing for Time Out Buenos Aires. Still, give me credit; the idea for the piece was mine, all mine.

I was surprised because the crowd was younger and better-looking than I expected. There were some tourists but enough locals to give the joint more than a passing whiff of Argentine authenticity. In between those lovely tango ballads that, you know, leave me pretty cold, the DJ slipped in a very welcome surprise: Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" (listen). I almost fell off my chair! Who knew that anyone in Argentina had even heard of old Leonard, and what on earth does he have to do with tango? My friend Gustavo explained that milongas are not typically purist when it comes to the playlist, so if a song has a tango feel, it's fair game. Whatever tango feel "I'm Your Man" possesses remains lost on me, but as a huge fan ("Closing Time" from 1992's The Future--see the video below--is my favorite six minutes of Cohen), I'll take what I can get.

I met Leonard's singer-songwriter son, Adam Cohen, years ago in New York City. It was the Sunday night before a Monday holiday, and I was killing time at the bar of a Chelsea restuarant (the name of which escapes me at the moment) before going out with my friend Elvis, who was a waiter there. I was having a conversation with a girl who looked like a young Julianne Moore about the merits of the new Fiona Apple CD, When The Pawn..., which was an obsession of mine at the time, and Adam chimed in. We spent several hours afterwards discussing music and downing cocktails until the lights went out, and we were forced to leave. Adam called me a few days later and left a message on my answering machine, but I was on my way out of town, and by the time I returned to my home, he'd returned to his in Los Angeles.

This memory didn't come flooding back to me as I listed to Adam's dad crooning at the milonga. I thought about how, for the first time since I moved to BA, porteño taste in music--so often focused squarely on the '80s--was impressing me. Perhaps I won't have to come around to their way of thinking and starting eating meat, guzzling wine and doing the tango. Maybe, just maybe, there's hope that I can bring them around to mine.

video

Thursday, December 4, 2008

"WELL, BABY, I'M A PUT ON A SHOW KIND OF GIRL"

Britney Spears CDs are more or less made for the gym. The perfunctory ballad or two aside, the singer rarely disturbs the groove. (Her superstardom remains a mystery to me, considering that she's spent most of her post-"...Baby One More Time" recording career being upstaged by her producers.) Never was the workout potential of her music stronger than with last year's Blackout, an accidental near-masterpiece (in spite of, or perhaps thanks to, Britney's apparent lack of involvement) with enough kinetic energy to get you through a non-stop hour-long cardio spree. Circus, her sixth studio album (who thought she'd stick around so long, or that we'd still care a decade later?) won't keep you ticking quite so relentlessly, but in some ways, it's even more gym-appropriate. Listening to it induces reactions similar to those brought on by a reluctant trip to the gym.

In pre-release interviews, Britney promised a more urban-sounding record, which she doesn't even come close to delivering. She covers just about every other base--pop, rock, dance, trip hop, techno, etc.--but leaves out the soul. In fact, despite the pervasive electro-pop sheen, Circus might be her poppiest record since 2000's Oops!...I Did It Again. And as state-of-the-art 21st-century R&B goes, "I'm A Slave 4 U" from 2001 blows away everything on Circus. One can, however, probably safely assume that Britney's Circus will out-soul Take That's The Circus, which also was released this week. So much for naming un-conventionalism.

But getting back to the gym. Making it through the first three tracks is like huffing and puffing through the warm-up period. You find yourself sluggish, distracted, constantly wondering, What am I doing here? "Womanizer," which kicks things off, might be her first No. 1 single since her career-opening (and defining) "...Baby One More Time" almost exactly 10 years ago, but the song also sounds like it could have been the follow-up to that classic. It's a step in the wrong direction: backwards. The next two tracks do nothing to advance Britney's cause--or her sound.

Things start to pick up four songs in with the delightfully over-produced "Kill The Lights"-- complete with propulsive shuffle beat, spooky synth side-effects and back up "whoos" on the first verse--and you begin to think, Hey, maybe I can see this through. After a sharp dip mid-album with the juvenile, singsongy "If You Seek Amy" (that's right, F-U-C-K Me!), Circus regains momentum and starts to hit its stride with two atmospheric mid-tempo tracks in the vein of In The Zone's "Early Mornin'" and Blackout's "Heaven On Earth" but not quite on par with either, and one '60s-style go-go pop romp called "Mmm Papi." It's not until track 10, "Mannequin," the only thing here even remotely resembling contemporary R&B, that Circus truly inspires dedication to the groove--or to the treadmill. The producers are finally hitting all the right beats, and for the first time, the benefits of a more clear and present Britney are evident.

By the final song, "My Baby," a slobbering, sappy love note to her two tots, it's cool-down time. If you're like me, you'll skip it and head for the shower. But then you'd miss the bonus cuts (which vary, depending on what country you live in). Stick around and some of them (particularly "Amnesia," a pulsating rocker about losing your mind in the throes of lust... um, love, and "Trouble," which is propelled by a hard-core early '90s techno beat) might actually send you back to the cross-country ski machine, baby, one more time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

MORE MAGIC MOMENTS

The great Maggie Smith, haughty by nature (and perfecting her patented prickly persona), in California Suite... Juliette Binoche, attempting to check out emotionally and failing miserably, in Trois Couleurs: Bleu... I think I'll just stay here and drink: Ray Milland in The Lost Weekend. Susan Hayward in I'll Cry Tomorrow. Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in Days of Wine And Roses... Barbara Stanwyck, earning an Oscar nomination without getting out of bed, in Sorry, Wrong Number... Catherine Deneuve, looking gorgeous, smoking opium...and inhaling, in Indochine... Miranda Richardson, confronting Jeremy Irons in the nude after the death of their son, in Damage...

Going out with a bang: The beautifully directed suicide that closes Carrington. Emma Thompson, as the title character, propping herself over the barrel of a rifle. A sweeping outdoor view of her estate. Swelling music. Pow! The End... One tear falling down Glenn Close's cheek in the closing frame of Dangerous Liaisons (above, pre-tear). Slow fade to black. The best movie ending ever... Tears of the lonely: Close-ups of Jack Nicholson and Fernanda Montenegro, both unexpectedly transformed by the gratitude of a child, weeping in the final scenes of, respectively, About Schmidt and Central Station... Before the crash at the end of The Unbearable Lightness Of Being. Juliette Binoche: "What are you thinking?" Daniel Day-Lewis: "About how happy I am?"... Olivia de Havilland's ascent up the staircase in The Heiress... Susan Hayward's march to the gas chamber in I Want To Live!... Take me to the river: Nicole Kidman, as Virginia Woolf, drawn to the water, in The Hours...

Geraldine Page, killing the pain (and herself), in identical fashion, in Interiors... Road kill: Simone Signoret and Elizabeth Taylor, winning Oscars for playing the doomed objects of Laurence Harvey's affection and, ultimately, his rejection, in, respectively, Room At The Top and Butterfield 8... Burt Lancaster's unhinged, Oscar-winning, leading ladies: Anna Magnani in The Rose Tattoo and Shirley Booth in Come Back, Little Sheba... Sounder, another movie named for a dog but not really about the dog... Beah Richards, so dignified and spot on in her assessment of grumpy old men, in Guess Who's Coming To Dinner...

The terrifying breakdown of Ellen Burstyn's diet pill-popping Long Island Jewish matron in Requiem For A Dream... Natalie Wood, coming undone, in Splendor In The Grass... Naomi Watts, clobbering Benicio del Toro with a baseball bat, in 21 Grams... Catherine Zeta-Jones' complete 180 in Traffic: "Shoot him in the head! Just shoot him in the head!"... Julianne Moore, allergic to life, in Safe... Hugh Grant's floppy hair... Golden Girl: Gena Rowlands, sexy and sixtysomething, in Unhook The Stars... Sissy Spacek, smacking Marisa Tomei without standing up or even bothering to look at her, in In The Bedroom... Shirley MacLaine and Anne Bancroft, clobbering each other, in The Turning Point...

Watching Richard Dreyfuss in the The Goodbye Girl trailer at age 8. "I Don't. Like. The panties. Drying. On. The. Rod."... Eddie Murphy, all pompous and a victim of circumstances, in Dreamgirls (and getting robbed on Oscar night for his considerable efforts)... Women scorned: Bette Davis' grand entrance, smoking gun in hand and still-firing, in The Letter. Cameron Diaz, going off the rails and taking Tom Cruise down with her, in Vanilla Sky. Judi Dench, rebuffed by Cate Blanchett and giving lesbians a very bad name, in Notes On A Scandal...

Joan Crawford, catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror and being appalled by what she sees, in Sudden Fear... Angelica Huston's mother from hell in The Grifters. Angela Lansbury, giving her a run for her depravity, in The Manchurian Candidate... Reese Witherspoon, haunting Matthew Broderick's dreams, in Election... Love, Italian-style: Audrey Hepburn swept away by Gregory Peck in Roman Holiday. Katharine Hepburn caught up in the rapture in Summertime. The camera falling in love with Jude Law in The Talented Mr. Ripley... Forget Paris. Who needs a French kiss? We've got Italy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS

Sexy-spooky musical codas. "You're No Good," Linda Ronstadt's only No. 1 single, and Kate Bush's "The Dreaming," wouldn't be the same without them.... Reba McEntire letting go as "You Lie" fades out. Country music's grandest exit... Musical reinvention. Bee Gees: from from Beatles-esque folkies to Jive Talkin' disco gods. Dottie West: from country bumpkin to fortysomething urban cowgirl and sex symbol. Everything But The Girl: from designers of aural wallpaper to the king and queen of soulful trip hop...

Great songs with even better titles: "I'm Gonna Hire A Wino To Decorate Our Home," I Need Some Fine Wine And You, You Need To Be Nicer," "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me," "I Sat Down By Picadilly Station And Wept"... Cyndi Lauper when she puts quirky to bed and gets dead serious: "True Colors," "I Drove All Night," "Lay Me Down"... Difficult, underperforming follow-ups that are better than their titanic predecessors: Fleetwood Mac's Tusk, Terence Trent D'Arby's Neither Fish Nor Flesh, Linda Perry's In Flight, Fiona Apple's When The Pawn..., Pink's Try This...

Duffy's morning-after blues in the "Stepping Stone" video, above (and Sophie Muller's typically understated direction in detailing the aftermath of a one-night stand). A future movie star is born.... Richard Ashcroft's face... PJ Harvey's strange bangs and crooked jaw in the "Broken Homes" video... Comeback kids and second acts that blow away part one. The rise and fall and rise of Tina Turner, Cher, Linda Perry and Mariah Carey. Who's Next? Michael Jackson? Stranger things have happened.... Sugababes, Girls Aloud and other British superstars who don't seem to care whether Americans ever get them. Robbie Williams, take note....

Madonna when she stops trying so hard (Confessions On A Dancefloor). Kylie when she tries harder (Body Language). Britney when she's not trying at all (Blackout)...Song titles that begin with "Like A..."... Taylor Swift's, um, swift ascent to the top of the country diva heap. (I still haven't heard any of her songs.) Carrie Underwood, meet your match.... Songs about self-gratification: Tweet's "Oops (Oh My)," Divinyls' "I Touch Myself," Cyndi Lauper's "She Bop," the Vapors' "Turning Japanese," Chuck Berry's "My Ding-A-Ling"...

The subtle crack in Amy Winehouse's voice when she sings "I cheated myself" for the final heartbreaking time in "You Know I'm No Good," her finest 4:17--so far... Exclamation points in song titles! That means you, Shania! Come back, girl!... Album cuts that blow away the hits: Keane's "On A Day Like Today" (Hopes And Fears), Coldplay's "Daylight" (A Rush Of Blood To The Head), Kylie's "Like A Drug" (X), U2's "Exit" (The Joshua Tree)... When extraordinary songs happen to mediocore albums: Annie Lennox's "Coloured Bedspread" (Songs Of Mass Destruction), Madonna's "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You" (Hard Candy), Christina Aguilera's "Candyman" (Back To Basics)...

That the constantly self-redefining Leona Naess still gets to make albums despite selling so few of them... Robert Plant's underrated '80s solo output. "Big Log" never grows old. "In The Mood" is the jam. Ah, "Heaven Knows"! "Lighten up, baby, I'm in love with you!"... Lauryn Hill's "Lost Ones," the best kiss-off ever... The '90s Lilith Generation--Sarah McLachlan, Paula Cole, Fiona Apple, Joan Osborne--mostly gone from the charts but not forgotten. Where have all the cowgirls gone?... MIA's "Paper Planes" and Robyn Ft. Kleerup's "With Every Heartbeat," the pleasant surprise hits of the last two years...

Bjork's "All Is Full Of Love," the best video ever made. Roxette's "Spending My Time," Depeche Mode's "Barrel Of A Gun" and R.E.M.'s "Lotus." Every great song deserves an unforgettable clip... The Killers' Hot Fuss, Neil Diamond's 12 Songs, Nancy Sinatra's Nancy Sinatra and Steve Windwood's "Freedom Overspill": the soundtrack to my first trip to Buenos Aires in April of 2005... Kelly Rowland solo. Better than Beyonce. Seriously. They get her in the UK, where she's had five Top 5 singles and a No. 1 album. Wake up, America!...

Great eponymous albums: Erasure's Erasure (the end of their American success), Aaliyah's Aaliyah (her swan song), The Smiths The Smiths (the arrival)... Not so great albums with fantastic titles: Pat Benatar's Wide Awake In Dreamland, Boy George's Tense Nervous Headache, Prince's Come... When a band's commercial peak also represents their best work (R.E.M.'s holy triumvirate: Out Of Time, Automatic For The People and Monster)... Stuart Price remixes: Madonna's "Hollywood," Depeche Mode's "A Pain That I'm Used To," The Killers "All These Things That I've Done," Coldplay's "Talk"...

Zero 7's "In The Waiting Line" at the end of the Sex And The City episode "The Domino Effect," in which Mr. Big has heart surgery. Chicago's "If You Leave Me Now" at the end of another sixth season episode, the one with the gay prom. The Source Ft. Candi Staton's "You Got The Love" at the close of the series finale. Among TV soundtracks, only Grey's Anatomy's rivals SATC's.... Throw Down Your Arms: Sinead O'Connor does reggae... "Mountain Of Things": Tracy Chapman's bitter fruit... Union: Toni Child's song cycle on life, love and pain... Speaking of life, love and pain, David Gray's "Dead In The Water" and "December" from A New Day At Midnight...

Sarah Cracknell taking a shower in the video for Saint Etienne's "Only Love Can Break Your Heart"... Underrated distaff British genius: Alison Moyet, Roisin Murphy, Shara Nelson and, of course, that Sarah Cracknell... Musical chemistry: Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach's Painted From Memory, Mary J. Blige and U2's "One," Patti LaBelle's Prince-produced-and-cowritten "I Hear Your Voice," Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush's "Don't Give Up" and Pet Shop Boys featuring Dusty Springfield on "What Have I Don't To Deserve This?" Honorable mention: Pet Shop Boys producing Liza Minelli on Results...

Mainstream stars who never went all the way to No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100: Bruce Springsteen, the Pointer Sisters, Credence Clearwater Revival, Tom Petty and Electric Light Orchestra... U.S. one-hit wonders of the '00s: Tweet ("Oops [Oh My]"), Truth Hurts ("Addictive"), Amerie ("1 Thing"), Cassie ("Me & U"), Snow Patrol ("Chasing Cars")... The increasingly diminishing chart fortunes of the Simpson sisters, Jessica and Ashlee... Parentheses (in song titles)...

David Bowie complementing my "jumper"... Kylie Minogue praising my platinum blond 'do... Standing up Ringo Starr, singer of "Photograph," the best solo hit by a Beatle... Being fed grilled shrimp by Patti LaBelle... Trying not to stare at Mariah Carey's heaving bosom... Making Brandy's mother weep... Bringing Robin S to tears... Waving to Reba McEntire and Faith Hill in a crowded auditorium at the American Music Awards and having them enthusiastically return the gesture. Later on, being introduced by Marie Osmond to her dad and kids... Reminding Lee Ann Womack of the words to "Lord, I Hope This Day Is Good" during an intimate performance at a pre-release dinner for her I Hope You Dance album. Predicting to her that the title cut would be massive, a signature smash in the making... Enya telling me about the transcendent power of music as expressed in her song "How Can I Keep From Singing?"... Sebastian Bach referring to his girlfriend as his "chick"... Tammy Wynette and Robert Palmer, now both dearly departed, leaving messages on my answering machine...

Meeting Bono in front of the elevator in the lobby of the Chateau Marmont in L.A., where he called "In A Little While" and "When I Look At The World" the "unsung heroes" on All That You Can't Leave Behind when I told him they were my favorites on that album... Heart--and memory--failing in the back of a limo with a Backstreet Boy. (Thanks, Absolute!)... Barry White saying that I have an "ear for music" when I expressed my great love of his 1987 pre-comeback hit "Sho You Right." Basia making a similar comment when I called "My Cruel Ways" my favorite song on The Sweetest Illusion...

Elton John's "Curtains," fit for a funeral. Hope they play it at mine.