Saturday, January 29, 2011

Dear Ryan Murphy... Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Followill and stars on Twitter: If you can't say -- or tweet -- something nice...

This week's verbal tussle between Ryan Murphy and Kings of Leon should qualify as 2011's biggest embarrassment so far for both sides. Round two unofficially began a day or two ago when Kings of Leon drummer Nathan Followill responded (via Twitter, naturally) to Glee creator Ryan Murphy's public dressing down of the band, who refused to let Murphy feature it's hit "Use Somebody" in an episode of the show.

"Dear Ryan Murphy, let it go. See a therpaist, get a manicure, buy a new bra. Zip your lip and focus on educating 7yr olds how to say fuck."

Followill must have realized how his comments might be construed because he soon tweeted an apology to anyone who interpreted what he said as being misogynistic or homophobic. Come on now, Nathan. In what universe, is there anything misogynistic or homophobic in those words? They're not particularly funny or clever, but if someone advised me to buy a bra, I'd worry that he or she might be implying that I'm fat and have man boobs before assuming that it's about my sexuality.

And considering what Murphy had previously told The Hollywood Reporter about Kings of Leon -- it began with "F**k you, Kings of Leon," before further damning them with the tag "self-centered assholes" -- Followill's response could have been so much worse. Eminem's would have been. (The $200,000 licensing price tag of his "Lose Yourself" proved way too expensive for Glee -- which pretty much equals a snub in my book since if Eminem loved the show as much as Murphy seems to think everyone should, he would have lowered his rate -- but Murphy didn't have anything to say about that. Intimidated much?)

Frankly, Murphy needs to take a deep breath and bring his ego down a few notches. His comments -- which unfortunately echo Neil Patrick Harris's calling The Young and the Restless star Eric Braeden a "D-Bag" after the soap icon bailed out of a How I Met Your Mother cameo recently -- reflect badly on both him and the show, and I wouldn't be surprised if other musicians are wary of letting him use their music in the future, especially since he implied that Slash is not only a has-been but also "uneducated and stupid" for daring to criticize Glee.

But the most ridiculous part of Murphy's rant is when he claimed that by letting its music be used in Glee, Kings of Leon would allow 7 year olds to see someone close to their age singing one of the band's songs, perhaps inspiring them to join a glee club or pick up an instrument. Aren't the members of Kings of Leon around the same age as most of the Glee cast? There are glee clubs for 7 year olds? I'm all for getting kids interested in the arts -- which I refuse to believe is Murphy's prime motivation anyway -- but I don't think that it should necessarily be via a song with lyrics like "Countless lovers under cover of the street/You know that I could use somebody/You know that I could use somebody/Someone like you."

Whatever happened to those sweet, wholesome animated Disney musicals featuring more age-appropriate tunes? I can think of better ways to get a 7 year old hooked on music than through Kings of Leon, or for that matter, Glee, a show that's only targeted to them when it suits Murphy. Though he certainly can teach kids a lot about getting rich when they grow up, hopefully, they won't be learning any language skills, or how to deal with rejection from him either.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Why it must kind of suck to be Katie Holmes today

Every time I see a photo of Katie Holmes, I can't help but feel a twinge of pity -- and not just because she's married to Tom Cruise. This morning when Michelle Williams was nominated for her second Academy Award, this time for Best Actress for Blue Valentine, you just know that somewhere in Hollywood, Holmes was seething. Hard.

As a huge fan of soap operas, I love a good girl-on-girl rivalry, both onscreen and off, so I've always imagined that behind the scenes on Dawson's Creek, Holmes and Williams secretly hated each other and had a frosty relationship that was even more contentious than the ones their TV alter egos occasionally had. Sometimes, in my wildest dreams, I even throw in a good catfight or two.

While Williams gets Oscar nominations and juicy roles opposite big capital-A Actors like Ryan Gosling and Leonardo DiCaprio, Holmes gets stuck with Channing Tatum and Adam Sandler (more on that later) and has to settle for playing Jackie O in the American History Channel TV miniseries The Kennedys. Oops! The American History Channel just announced that they will not be airing The Kennedys, leaving the miniseries without a netowrk home. Interestingly, in My Week With Marilyn, the upcoming feature film, Williams will play Marilyn Monroe, who had an affair with U.S. President John F. Kennedy, Jackie's first husband.

Then there's Williams' Brokeback Mountain costar Anne Hathaway, whom Katie is reportedly furious with for so perfectly lampooning her recently on Saturday Night Live. Not only will she co-host the Oscars on February 27, but she just won the role of the female lead -- Catwoman, no less -- in the next Batman film. (Let's not forget that Batman himself, Christian Bale, just got his first Oscar nod for The Fighter.) Holmes must still rue the day she gave up her part in The Dark Knight to make the flop comedy Mad Money, or because Tom Cruise said to, depending on which story you believe.

Finally, there are Tom's A-list exes. Nicole Kidman, his former wife, will compete against Williams in the Best Actress category for her performance in Rabbit Hole, and a pregnant Penelope Cruz, the ex girlfriend who has an Oscar and three nominations of her own, no doubt will show up on the arm of her husband, Javier Bardem, a Best Actor nominee for Biutiful. Now that is what I call marrying well.

Fortunately for Holmes, her career forecast doesn't call for non-stop rain: She'll play Adam Sandler's love interest in the upcoming Jack & Jill. It's nice work, and I'm kind of surprised that she was able to get it, considering that she's not known for intentionally illiciting laughs from moviegoers. Still, that thankless role, in which Patricia Arquette, Winona Ryder, Emily Watson, Marisa Tomei, Tea Leoni and Salma Hayek all have been cast, and which Jennifer Aniston soon will try on in Just Go With It (due February 11), hasn't done much for anyone's career since Sandler and Drew Barrymore teamed up for The Wedding Singer way back when in 1998.

At least Holmes will get the bragging right to say she's co-starred with Al Pacino -- twice (in Jack & Jill and in the Channing Tatum vehicle Son of No One, which just premiered -- and reportedly bombed -- at Sundance 2011). Not even Tom Cruise can use that one.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

For your consideration: My last-minute predictions for the 2011 Oscar nominations

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the nominees for the 2011 Oscars on Tuesday morning, and it just dawned on me that I've yet to compile my list of predictions. Best Supporting Actress aside, I think that on February 27, we'll see the same people at the podium that we've been seeing all Oscar season so far, but that doesn't mean the Academy won't throw us some curve balls come tomorrow. I'll be waiting, hand in glove, ready to catch them.

Best Actress
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right
Julianne Moore, The Kids Are All Right
Nicole Kidman, Rabbit Hole
Hailee Steinfeld, True Grit

Note that Julianne Moore has stolen the spot that's usually reserved for Winter's Bone's Jennifer Lawrence. Here's why: The wildly overrated film has lost much of its early season buzz in recent weeks, and I just don't see Oscar flirting with two underage actresses -- Steinfeld, 14, and Lawrence, 20 -- in the same year. One of them will be out, and I suspect it will be Lawrence. Ellen Page and Carey Mulligan she is not. She'll be this year's Sally Hawkins, a precursor darling who doesn't make the final cut.

Best Actor
Colin Firth, The King's Speech
James Franco, 127 Hours
Jesse Eisenberg, The Social Network
Jeff Bridges, True Grit
Javier Bardem, Biutiful

Ryan Gosling would be a shoo-in if Blue Valentine weren't so fringey, and if the category, usually reserved for actors in their mid-thirties and older, weren't already so loaded with young actors. Jeff Bridges will get the old-coot slot (sorry, Bobby Duvall), and Javier Bardem, who recently got a big plug from his Eat, Pray, Love costar Julia Roberts, will sneak in over Gosling and The Fighter's Mark Wahlberg.

Best Supporting Actress
Amy Adams, The Fighter
Melissa Leo, The Fighter
Helena Bonham Carter, The King's Speech
Mila Kunis, Black Swan
Jackie Weaver, Animal Kingdom

This is by far the most volatile category. Barbara Hershey could possibly steal Mila Kunis's thunder and end up representing Black Swan here, but I think her role might have been too small and the performance too subtle to ultimately register with the academy (see Rachel Getting Married's snubbed monster of a mother Debra Winger -- the Academy likes its horror moms loud and loudly dressed, like The Fighter's Melissa Leo and last year's winner, Mo´Nique from Precious). As for Another Year's Lesley Manville, who has been collecting accolades for months, category confusion will lead to her getting the snub, as Mike Leigh's last leading lady, Happy Go Lucky's aforementioned Hawkins, unfairly did two years ago.

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Fighter
Geoffrey Rush, The King's Speech
Andrew Garfield, The Social Network
Mark Ruffalo, The Kids Are All Right
Jeremy Renner, The Town

If the Academy is in a sentimental mood -- and when is it not? -- look for the dearly and recently departed Pete Postlethwaite to take his The Town costar Jeremy Renner's spot. The other four feel like locks to me.

Best Director
David Fincher, The Social Network
Christopher Nolan, Inception
Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan
Tom Hooper, The King's Speech
David O. Russell, The Fighter

Best Picture
The Social Network
The King's Speech
Black Swan
The Fighter
Toy Story 3
The Kids Are All Right
True Grit
The Town
The Ghost Writer

There's a chance that 127 Hours could sneak in here, but for some reason, James Franco aside, the movie doesn't seem to be on many radars, which is strange, considering that Danny Boyle's last film, 2008's Slumdog Millionaire, won both Best Picture and Best Director.

Perhaps the biggest curve ball that the Academy could toss our way would be to nominate someone of color in one of the acting categories. The cast of frontrunners is alarmingly white. Was 2010 such a terrible year for black actors? Come to think of it, it was, but did any of the best supporting actress candidates do a better job than Kerry Washington or Shereeka Epps in Mother and Child. When the most prominently featured black person in a Best Picture contender is Sugar Ray Leonard in The Fighter, Hollywood, we've got a very big problem.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The one thing in "Blue Valentine" that I just can't shake (and no, it's not the sex!)

Like too many of 2010's critically acclaimed Oscar hopefuls (including The Fighter, Winter's Bone, Get Low, The Kids Are All Right and frontrunner The Social Network), Blue Valentine underwhelmed me. Though it's superior to much of what passes for cinema these days, unlike Rabbit Hole (another drama about love on the rocks, though for entirely different reasons), it failed to move me. It's hard to get invested in a couple when you don't understand why they're together in the first place.

Well, that's only half true. I totally got why Michelle Williams's character, Cindy, would fall for Ryan Gosling's Dean, though neither Williams nor the screenplay completely sold me on the fall (a bit more on that later). He was sweet, charming, funny, and, being played by Gosling, all kinds of sexy. I'm still not sure how he turned into such a balding loser in the space of the six or so years covered by the movie, but I guess viewers, who probably were supposed to identify more with Cindy, wouldn't have bought that she wouldn't want to have sex with a guy who looked like Gosling.

As for Cindy's appeal, it remains a mystery to me. I still haven't figured out why a total of three men in Blue Valentine were crazy for her. To me, she was a lot like Jen Lindley, the charcter Williams used to play on Dawson's Creek -- kind of slutty, kind of smart, kind of bitchy and kind of dull. Normally, I cringe at the threat of onscreen violence, but I was almost relieved when Dean finally lost it near the end because Cindy, and by extension Williams, finally started to come alive. I wouldn't complain if either or both actors received Oscar nominations on Tuesday, but I think Gosling and Williams have done and will do more impressive work in other films.

What really stood out in Blue Valentine for me, though, was neither the performances nor that weird little jig that Cindy did during the courtship scenes. (Though I loved the song Dean was singing, whatever it was.) It was something Dean said early on. He told his colleague at the moving company that he believes guys are more romantic than girls are. At first, I laughed and wondered how he could dare to make such a bold, erroneous comment, but when he explained himself, he actually made a lot of sense.

The gist of what he said was this: Guys spend their lives fooling around until they find the perfect girl, the one they can't live without, and they settle down with her -- or at least try to. Meanwhile, women start out looking for the the same perfect mate, the one they can't live without, and when they don't find him, they settle for the best of whatever options they have. I don't know if that makes them less romantic, which has as much to do with ideals as it does with actions, but it's one of the more interesting observations I've heard in a while.

I won't make any real-life generalizations here (though I feel that he made a valid point), but I did like the way the eventual arc of Cindy and Dean's romance supported Dean's theory. Dean's feelings for Cindy were palpable from beginning to end, but I never noted any real sparks on her side. It seemed to me that he won her over because he was in the right place at the right time, and he was persistent. She was settling. Her parents knew it, Dean knew it, and she knew it.

Dean's idea, so casually presented, leaves me wondering about the dynamic of straight relationships nearly a week after seeing the film. I often hear people say that it's impossible for straight men and straight women to be platonic friends because sex eventually gets in the way. (Hell, that was the entire premise of When Harry Met Sally...!) If this were true (and I believe such friendships are hard, if not impossible, to establish), that would make sexual attraction the defining element of relationships between heterosexual men and women, the strongest bond. That would certainly be the case for the typical male (lover of sports and action, the realist) and the typical female (lover of beauty and romance, the idealist), which might be why when they stop having sex, much of the time, they stop communicating, too.

For gay partners, both male and female, one might expect there to be more common psychological ground if gender does indeed play the prominent role in our overall identities, which I think it does. That might be why gay couples -- male ones, in particular -- can more or less fall in and out of lust, go outside of the relationship for sexual gratification, and still remain happy together. It's interesting that a lack of sex played a large role in widening the chasm between the warring couples in Rabbit Hole and Blue Valentine, while the lesbian pair in The Kids Are All Right, for all of their problems, sexual and otherwise, still seemed to be more in sync.

Straight relationships, of course, are more complicated than just sex. But if that is the primary glue that brings two people together, sticks them together and keeps them together (and there really wasn't any other glue in evidence in Blue Valentine), then when sexual desire dims (as it invariably tends to do for most couples, regardless of sexual orientation), when the romance is gone, what else is there? For many real-life pairs, kids and bills, which probably keep the divorce rate from closing in on around 90 per cent. For Cindy and Dean, a lot of resentment and angry sex. I wouldn't want to deal with that in real life, and I surely don't want to sit through two hours of it onscreen.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The rose is still a rose: In praise of Aretha Franklin

She's still alive, and may she remain that way for years to come.

For weeks, the media had been buzzing with reports that Aretha Franklin was suffering from pancreatic cancer (in late December several outlets even erroneously ran obituaries!), but several days ago, the Queen of Soul publicly denied that she has cancer. I hope that whatever forced her to undergo surgery on December 2 and cancel all of her concert appearances through May is not life threatening and that a full recovery is underway.

Perhaps new music will be forthcoming, too, as it's been nearly eight years since Aretha's last studio album, 2003's So Damn Happy. Until the next one comes along, or the inevitable Aretha biopic (she's said she wants Halle Berry, 44, to play her, but I'd prefer that a more age-appropriate actress like Kerry Washington, 34, got the gig), there's a massive back catalog of Aretha songs to satisfy our cravings for classic soul. Among them, here are my five favorite singles.

"Call Me"
As hard as it might be for anyone under the age of 30 to believe, there was a time when singles as timeless and unformulaic as this one regularly sailed into the Top 20 on Billboard's Hot 100. A true triumph of naked emotion over cluttered production.

"Spanish Harlem"
My all-time favorite Aretha song. Listen to the fantastic 1960 original by Ben E. King, then Aretha's 1971 cover, and recognize how deep runs her gift for masterful musical reinvention. Years ago, I was at a listening party for the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack, and Babyface, who produced all of the female artist-sung tracks on the album and had a hand in writing all but one of them, had the nerve to declare the movie and soundtrack's star Whitney Houston the greatest singer ever. Had Houston been present, I'm sure that she, too, would have objected to Babyface's overblown praise in deference to Aretha.

"Bridge Over Troubled Water"
Speaking of masterful reinvention (blasphemy alert!), I've always preferred Aretha's 1971 gospel take on the Simon & Garfunkel classic over the original. When I think of the song, this the version that plays in my head.

Lest we forget that Aretha is also a gifted songwriter, there's the aforementioned "Call Me," "Think" and this 1972 hit, each of which she wrote. Every Aretha fan has heard her version, so to shake things up a bit, here is Dionne Warwick (whose "I Say A Little Prayer" belongs as much to Aretha as it does to Dionne, or My Best Friend's Wedding) covering it on The Flip Wilson Show in 1972. Doesn't she more than do it justice?

"Jump to It"
I grew up in a house where for many years we listened to only gospel and country music. So my earliest Aretha memory is from when I was about 13 years old, and it wasn't "Respect" but rather this Luther Vandross-produced 1982 comeback hit (No. 1 R&B, No. 24 pop), which provided DJ Tom Novy's 2005 UK dance hit "Your Body" with its unforgettable loop.

With the exception of "Jump to It," Aretha recorded all of the above hits before she turned 30. Is there a female artist under 30 today who is capable of such greatness?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Are you sleeping on Duffy's "Endlessly"?

If I'm lucky, it happens once or twice a year. A new album comes out, I listen to it a few times, and I shrug. It's not terrible, but it's not essential either. Then unexpectedly, it grabs me by the ears and refuses to let go. This is how I came to love Lisa Stansfield's Affection, Radiohead's The Bends, and, most recently, Duffy's second album, Endlessly.

Like Amy Winehouse, the artist to whom she is most frequently compared (Dusty Springfield is a close second), Duffy equals Buenos Aires for me. My entire love affair with her and her music is contained in the four-plus years I've been living here. When her debut album, Rockferry, came out in 2008, it was love at first listen. I never really got the Dusty comparisons (there's not even a hint of black in Duffy's voice), but when I listened to her, I was transported back to a time (circa 1965) before I was even born.

Endlessy has been a decidedly more acquired taste. When it came out in early December, it didn't impress me much. Not only was I disappointed by its short running time -- 10 songs lasting a mere 35 minutes -- but why was she collaborating exclusively with Albert Hammond, 66, the guy best known for his '70s cheesy-listening hit "It Never Rains In Southern California," and writing or co-writing a long list of hit ballads, some hot ("The Air That I Breathe," "When I Need You"), some not ("To All the Girls I've Loved Before," "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now")? Shouldn't she have worked with someone closer to her own age (26), like Albert Hammond Jr., 30, Hammond's son and rhythm guitarist for the Strokes?

Then one day, after a month with Endlessly in medium rotation, I saw an ad for it on Argentina's Sony TV channel. Its sample track was one called "Lovestruck," and suddenly, I was just that. I'd listened to the album so many times, but how had this sexy, sassy little number gone more or less unnoticed until that moment? Over the next few weeks, I listened to Endlessly endlessly, until it reached that point of undeniable awesomeness when every time I put it on, I discovered a new favorite song.

Where Rockferry, one of my favorite albums of 2008, belonged to the era of beehives and Motown, Endlessly isn't of any one particular time. There are hints of the '60s here and there ("Too Hurt To Dance" is a delicate tearjerker that could have been plucked right from a 1960 Brenda Lee recording session), but when you invite the Roots to be your backing band -- as Duffy and Hammond did on "Well, Well, Well," the first single -- you obviously don't have images of boufant hairdos and the Supremes swirling around in your mind.

There's nothing as immediately infectious as "Mercy," the Rockferry single that made Duffy a rare UK-to-US crossover star, but on "My Boy" and "Keeping My Baby" (today's favorite, which quotes Madonna's "Papa Don't Preach" and shares its subject matter without ripping off the '80s hit), she sounds gutsier, more forceful, no longer a victim of love. A few critics have carped about the occasional pinched vocal on Endlessly, but throughout, Duffy sings with the conviction of star who won't be sized up (or down) as some knock-off talent, a Dusty Springfield manque, or a poor girl's Amy Winehouse.

I'm not saying that Endlessly is better than Rockferry -- or even as good. But it deserves better than it's gotten commercially. The album only managed a No. 9 placing in the UK, and it debuted and (apparently) peaked at No. 72 in the US. It's worldwide sales so far are in the low thousands, where Rockferry topped out at more than six million and was 2008's fourth best-selling album worldwide. That's a steep, potentially fatal plummet for a developing career.

It's probably too late for Endlessly to rebound, not with bigger stars like Kelly Clarkson and Britney Spears due to make their returns any week now. Maybe Duffy was destined to be a one-album wonder. Perhaps she's just too elegant and tasteful to compete with modern pop's top divas. Hopefully, though, when she gets around to making album No. 3, she won't start trying.