10 December 2007

Benny Mardones in Concert

What: Benny Mardones
Where: Turning Stone Resort & Casino
When: Dec. 8
Time: Two hours and 14 minutes
Crowd: 678

An enthusiastic crowd waited in the Showroom at Turning Stone when, against medical advice, Benny Mardones walked onto the stage for his eleventh annual Christmas Concert.

“There was no one who believed I’d make it to the Christmas show tonight. Not my doctors, even I had some doubts,” Mardones, 61, said.

Mardones, nicknamed “The Voice” for his vocal range, performed 17 songs in a concert that lasted over two hours, standing for most of that time, when two months ago he was unable to walk. A car accident on October 17 of this year left him hospitalized, and only though physical therapy was he able to reach his goal of making it to Verona for the Christmas concert in Central New York, which Mardones calls his “adopted home town.”

“I told the nurse, tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it. She said, ‘I don’t think that’s going to be possible. I said, tell me what I have to do to make it possible.”

The fans that came out for the concert were overjoyed by his persistence and hard work, calling him back for an encore after he and the band had already left the stage.

The end result was a concert that was at once jokingly light and intensely personal. Mardones shared stories behind his songs, including his hospital stay, and introduced family and friends who had come to the concert, bringing them onto the stage for the audience to see.

His accident and his Parkinson’s Disease (which he was diagnosed with in 2002) have not left lasting impressions on his voice, which was still smooth with flavor and yet rough around the edges. He sang only one Christmas song, preferring instead to stick to the classics that made him a star in the 1980’s such as “Sheila C.” and “Into The Night.”

Mardones performed with the Syracuse-based band the Hurricanes, which includes singer Kim Fetters, whom Benny invited upstage with him to perform two duets and one song on her own.

When Mardones returned to the stage, he sat in a chair for two songs before having a stage hand take it away. “I don’t need no stinking chair,” he said.

Mardones also sang “The World Can Change” as a tribute to American soldiers in Iraq against the backdrop of an American flag. A veteran of Vietnam, Mardones brought onto the stage a friend who had served in Asia with him, and a military nurse who had just returned home from the Middle East.

These moments of gravity were coupled with moments of comedy as well, including knocking a mic stand into the audience, and an especially memorable moment when someone had to tell Mardones that his fly was down.

The crowd couldn’t get enough of Benny and the Hurricanes. They called for an encore, then waited en masse outside the Showroom for Mardones to make an appearance after the concert. In the opinions of the attendants, next year’s concert can’t come fast enough.

27 November 2007

Taylor, Lennon, and Company.

The attack on and death of Sean Taylor continues to stun the world, earning top real estates in newspapers such as the Miami Herald, online news sites from BBC.com to washingtonpost.com, and news broadcasts from your local six o'clock broadcast to PTI and SportsCenter.

Just as chilling is the fact that this attack is only the latest in what could be determined a rather frightening trend. And I'm not even talking about Michael Vick.

The break-in incident reported in Taylor's home eight days ago is mentioned in nearly every article on yesterday's shooting. But don't forget that on Jan. 1 of this year, Darrent Williams, cornerback for the Broncos, was killed in a drive-by shooting in Denver. Bryan Pata, a defensive lineman at U. Miami (ironically enough, Taylor's alma matter) was shot and killed a few miles from Taylor's home.

Thirty years ago, politicians and musicians (Kennedy, Kennedy, King, and Lennon) were the ones getting gunned down in their homes or the vicinities thereof, or in hotels, or in the streets. Ten ago, musicians like Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. were still getting shot in the streets, but teens and young children in schools became the new genre of victims. Now we've come to include athletes in the mix as well.

It's a bit frightening to consider what the next trend might be.

18 November 2007

The Amazing Mrs. Edwards

I wonder that more people don't marvel at the wonder that is Julie Andrews. Has the woman ever done anything that didn't turn out to be pure gold? Even 'The Princess Diaries' are enjoyable, albeit predictable, but still thoroughly charming.

Not every woman can recover from a botched throat surgery with the grace and resilience of the amazing Mrs. Blake Edwards, especially when such a woman made her career on her singing talents. But Julie Andrews continues to make movies and redefine her career.

And so, I'm taking just a quick moment to pay a small tribute to Julie Andrews. 'Cause she's just that damn cool.

17 November 2007

'Catherine the Great' on DVD

Of all the terrible made-for-TV movies out there, this one might take the cake.

Catherine the Great, empress of Russia, had a life that was anything but dull, but this bio-pic from 1995 bores to tears. Though it seems to take scant fewer poetic licenses than Josef von Sternberg's 1934 masterpiece 'The Scarlet Empress,' any comparison between the two would be the height of hubris. Von Sternberg could make tension crackle in black and white with the use of candles, one blond face, and a strategically-placed banister; this film, though it continues longer into Catherine's reign than 'Scarlet Empress' did, can't make even a spark from this fiery woman. Whereas one wishes that 'Scarlet Empress' would go on and on, this film moves slowly and doesn't end soon enough.

Catherine Zeta-Jones made this film three years before her break-out role in 'The Mask of Zorro,' and while she does show a moderate amount of potential in the role here, she is nowhere near as charismatic as her Mona Lisa smile on the cover of this DVD would make her seem. Clearly in the middle of her transition from stage actress to film actress, she delivers her lines without Jeanne Moreau, known to some as the Grande Dame from the first three minutes of 'Ever After,' shows more backbone in five minutes of her performance as Tsarina Elizabeth, another of Russia's female rulers, than the entire 93 minutes of Zeta-Jones' performance. Elizabeth's lover Razumovsky is played by Omar Sharif, who is understated and humble in his role, and nowhere near as spectacular as we all know he can be.

Surely the story of Catherine the Great is worthy of better treatment than this.

10 November 2007

Beatles Fame - 'Across The Universe'

Julie Taymor’s new film “Across The Universe” (Columbia & Revolution, 131 min.) paints a picture of a world without the members of the Fab Four ... almost. The group is gone, but the music remains, covered by a gang of friends who float in and out of the lives of two characters named (brace yourself now) Jude and Lucy as they blunder their way through the decade’s dose of sex, drugs, and rock & roll, and healthy side of “revolution.”

It’s hard to tell exactly what Taymor hoped to achieve with the film. If the answer is another example of beautiful lighting and cinematography, then “Across the Universe” would be a success. If she hoped to give viewers a headache by using more colors than a pris
m reflects light, once again the woman succeeds. If she wanted to demonstrate yet another example of her skill as a puppeteer (as if, after directing “Frida” and Broadway’s “The Lion King,” we needed it,) then she did an impressive, though perhaps poorly conceived, job. But if she wished to tell a story that seamlessly blends with the 31 Beatles songs she selected to accompany them, she has fallen short of her usual level of perfectionism.

Taymor, who co-wrote the film’s story, made a conscious decision to let the songs push the story, and the film suffers for that decision. The love story of Jude and Lucy should tie the other elements of the film together but it simply isn’t strong enough for the task. Almost nothing is done to further the plot in a cohesive or logical way. Several story lines are added only so Taymor could use particular songs. The puppet sequence in a circus tent set to “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite” is such a cringe-worthy plot point, not for lack of talent, but of necessity. By the time you see a Greek Orthodox priest and Salma Hayek dancing in a hospital full of Vietnam War vets, the viewer has lost the ability to be surprised at – or care about – anything more the film has to offer.

The actors double as singers in the film, and while several of them show talent, they direct attention more to the new (and sometimes misguided) interpretations of the songs: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as a love ballad from one cheerleader to another, “I Want You” sung by an Uncle Sam poster to members of the draft, and “I Am The Walrus” sung by Bono at what is meant to be a book-signing. Too many fleeting characters clog up the screen, story, and songs before disappearing as suddenly and as inexplicably as they arrived, usually to the audience’s disappointment. Conversely, too many characters you wish were fleeting stick around to the point of annoyance.

The numerous elements of the film – puppetry, music, color, what could laughingly be called plot – seem thrown together with little purpose, and they never live up to the promise Joe Cocker (who plays a bum, a pimp, and a “mad hippie” in the same four-and-a-half minute sequence) makes to “come together.” Sorry, Taymor, but it appears that the only people who can make a successful movie erected around Beatles songs are the Beatles. Like the song says, just let it be.

“Across The Universe” (2007)
Columbia Pictures, Revolution Studios
Directed by: Julie Taymor
Starring: Jim Sturgess, Evan Rachel Wood, Joe Anderson
Soundtrack available on Interscope Records

07 November 2007

La Femme Delpy

Julie Delpy’s latest film ‘2 Days in Paris’ has her name written all over it - literally. Delpy made her first feature-length directorial debut at feature length with this film, and also wrote, produced, edited, composed the music and provided still photography for it, and holds her ground on each count. If Delpy could have played every role, she probably would have, but then the viewer would have missed out on the hilarious performances and interactions of the other actors. But if she ever turns the film into a one-woman play, it’d definitely be worth seeing.

The plot seems exactly what the title suggests: Marion (Delpy) and her boyfriend Jack (played by real-life ex Adam Goldberg) spend two days in Paris with Marion’s parents (played by Delpy’s parents), her sister, and several ex-boyfriends. But the cultural differences that spring from seemingly nowhere complicate the comfortable two-year relationship, exposing the parts of themselves that they’ve kept hidden from each other.

The cultural oppositions between American (Jack) and French (Marion) are two obvious differences in the film (evidenced by location and sometimes by language – the film is in English and French, sometimes with subtitles and sometimes without), but other opposites spring up and force the couple to search for common ground. This exploration begins in the credits, where Marion’s voice-over describes her relationship with her boyfriend as they journey by train, and the landscape view from the train changes to match each phrase: “some ups, some downs, but mostly in betweens.” The delicate charm and humor of this short sequence set the tone for the rest of the film, though the end results aren’t always so simple or easy.

The film has numerous parallels to reality that can be distracting to an informed viewer. Marion, a photographer, has a birth defect on her retinas; Delpy, also a photographer, has commented publicly on her inability to judge distance and depth. Marion’s father operates an art gallery; all the artwork for that scene was done by Delpy’s father, Albert. The camerawork feels more like a documentary than a commercial film, and Delpy chose family and friends for many roles. With too many similarities to be dismissed as mere coincidence, one wonders what else in the film was stolen from reality, and it sometimes detracts from the enjoyment of an otherwise delightful film that ranges from egotistic to easygoing, from laugh-out-loud hysterical to utterly serious.

23 October 2007

03 October 2007

Hilary Duff in Concert

What: Hilary Duff in Concert. The Click Five opens.
When: Wednesday, August 29 2007
Where: Mohegan Sun Grandstand
Time: The Click Five, 35 minutes. Hilary Duff, 1 hour 10 minutes.
Crowd: 3,092

It’s hard to believe it was four years ago that Hilary Duff took that plunge which is inevitable of all tween icons in this day and age (especially those of whom Disney has any control) and released her first album.

When Duff, 19, returned to the State Fair for a concert (her last one was at the 2005 State Fair), one might have expected her fans to have grown up with her over the years. But instead of the attendees being over the tween age limit (the term applies to children between the ages of 8 and 12), most looked barely old enough to warrant the label.

Perhaps it is Duff’s still wholesome image and avoidance of the regular tabloid appearances that prevent her demographic from aging as she does. But she plays the part of the tween queen wonderfully, complete with a full-on light show, costume changes, background dancers and supplemental video to accompany her songs. Vendors sold glow sticks with her name printed on them. The costumes and choreography had more sex appeal than anticipated for a show geared toward such an age group, but the tweens didn’t mind. In fact, Duff seemed quite at home in her tween-dom element.

Duff performed mostly songs from her most recent album, ‘Dignity’, which premiered in April. She opened with “Play With Fire” and “Danger” and also sang “Never Stop”, “Gypsy Woman” and “With Love”. Other songs included “Come Clean” and “Someone’s Watching Over Me”. Two covers were “Our Lips Are Sealed”, a Go-Go’s song which she and sister Haylie recorded in 2004, and Pat Benatar’s “Love Is A Battlefield”.

Though not without talent, her voice varied from sounding relatively common to downright meager. At times she sings as clear as a bell, at other times she’s obviously straining with an instrument that’s not up to the task at hand. Duff doesn’t possess a strong voice, but it’s a distinct one, and she moves her way from song to song without much effort. The arrangements and back-up singers managed to help her find her way through the more difficult spots, but often it seemed that the talented individuals on stage with Duff were having more fun than she was.

Opening for Duff was The Click Five, a rock band that took the stage in the snappy costumes that are almost a trademark, making them look reminiscent of the Beatles (though with slightly shaggier hair). It was clear who had attended the concert especially for the band, for they averaged five to seven years over those who came wearing Hilary Duff T-shirts.

The quintet warmed up the crowd beautifully, attracting a local following of their own and now doubt making some new fans as well. Promoting their new album ‘Modern Minds and Pastimes’, which was released in June, the band played with strong lead vocals in Kyle Patrick, who has been with the band less than a year, and an undeniable bass talent in Ethan Mentzer. The other members of the band are Joe Guese on the guitar, Ben Romans on the keyboard and Joey Zehr on the drums.

The five come together from Boston (all attended Berklee College of Music) with one hit from 2005, “Just The Girl”, under their belt and the single “Jenny” from the new album recently released. A couple of the songs sounded like one another, but for the most part the band demonstrated an irrefutable appeal, and audience members found themselves nodding their heads in time in spite of themselves. Other songs performed included “When I’m Gone”, “Empty” and the closer “Headlight Disco”.

27 September 2007

On Why I Simply Can't Stand Russell Crowe

After years of near-relentless pursuing by a certain enamored friend who shall remain nameless, I finally watched 'A Beautiful Mind' tonight. Said friend had promised me that this movie would make me into a Russell Crowe fan, after years of being (seemingly) the only person in America who wasn't absolutely in love with 'Gladiator.'

Friend, it didn't work.

But I think it got me a step closer to pinning down why I'm not a fan of the guy. I don't deny that he's talented or skilled in his craft, but he lacks charisma. In his photographs or television appearances on talk shows, he seems to have plenty; indeed, give me a spread of him in InStyle magazine, and I can't tear my eyes away. But it fails to appear on screen. He can't wrap me into his characters at all. I think that's why 'Master and Commander' was literally painful to watch, why 'Gladiator' is little better than modest entertainment on a rainy afternoon, and why 'L.A. Confidential' is only good to watch on a Saturday night when I'm too lazy to look for anything better. Crowe can get your attention in spots, but he's simply not charismatic enough to hold it throughout the movie.

'L.A. Confidential' is such a difficult film to watch. Guy Pierce and Crowe battle back and forth not just in literal ways for so much of the film, but also in a deeper context. Who is the better actor? Who do you want to care more about? Who do you end up caring more about, in spite of what you may want? Pierce is probably at his best, and Crowe's performance is right about on par with his other work, but still you feel so torn between the two of them that you can't figure out which you want to see more of. It's annoying. And it's distracting.

I don't deny that Crowe understands his characters and portrays them with an almost painful precision. What is more difficult to bear is that he fails to wrap you into the character's story. John Nash is a singular man; so why, when I'm watching a film about him when the lead actor is doing such an excellent job, can I not stop thinking about my laundry?

It's simple. Crowe spends so much of his time becoming his characters, that he fails to take you along for the ride. He leaves you in the dust, and you feel at once impressed by his excellent portrayal and insulted that he doesn't care enough to get you as interested in the character as he is. It's like being the outsider in an inside joke; the joke is between Crowe and the character of the moment, and the outsider is everyone else.

Furthermore, as he goes on with his career, his performances become more and more overstated. He was just as good of an actor in 'L.A. Confidential' or 'The Insider' as he was in 'Gladiator' or 'A Beautiful Mind', but it's harder for him to check himself at the door. I don't see John Nash when I watch 'A Beautiful Mind', I see Russell Crowe playing John Nash. And frankly, I get less and less interested in Russell Crowe (let alone Russell Crowe playing John Nash) as the film goes on.

The moral of the story: even Lassie can get an audience to care. Acting abilities aren't everything, Mr. Crowe. Just ask Ashton Kutcher.

13 September 2007

Guardare La Bella Luna

In a moment of extremely strange symmetry, I'm watching 'Moonstruck' on TV tonight.

Why is there symmetry, you ask?

Well, I'm in Syracuse, which was actually the first place I ever watched 'Moonstruck.' Many :-/ years ago, I came to Syracuse with my mom. We were staying at my mom's old roommate's parent's (you still with me?) house here in Syracuse, and after dinner we were watching the news or something equally mundane, and at a time when all the grown-ups were going to bed, I saw a commercial for 'Moonstruck' coming up next. Since I was crashing on the couch anyway, I stayed up and watched it.

I feel lucky to remember that event. It's such an understated movie, understated in almost every way: scenery, acting, costumes (definitely), and of course, music, with Puccini's masterpiece 'Musetta's Waltz' dominating the background (except for a forgettable soft jazz/easy listening moment while Loretta's dressing for the opera, but even this is suited to the situation.) I grew up in a house where many of the old classics were watched so regularly that by the time I was old enough to remember seeing them, I'd watched them several times already. This is one of the few movies where I can distinctly recall the first time I saw it, remember the circumstances and events surrounding that first viewing, and can appreciate the differences between then and now, both in my personal life and in the world around me.

I watched this movie in one of the most optimal circumstances possible: dark room, fairly good-sized screen (for better detail), alone, unwinding from a big day and desirous to focus on anything but reality. The same circumstances are more or less present now, and my views and opinions about the film haven't particularly changed. But I don't actually find myself thinking about the film as I watch it. I think more about how things have changed since the last time I saw it. I've changed; the world has changed.

It's interesting how a piece of art - a portrait, a photograph, a film - that doesn't really change. It stays the same. The Trade Center towers will always be standing in 'Moonstruck,' no matter what happens to them away from the celluloid print.

But because of that image, the film makes a statement about itself that was never meant to be there. One simple shot, meant to be glamorous and exciting, now has a different significance that the film makers never intended. And because of it, audiences think of it differently.

Just some random thoughts for a random evening.

11 September 2007

Human Nature

I wonder if there is any such thing as human nature. In my experience, an action, deed or thought that will seem quite natural to one person will seem equally unnatural to another. Where one would speak, another would remain silence. Where one would run, another would fight. Where one would offer kindness and hospitality in any available form, another would turn a cold shoulder.

It's not uncommon to hear, "it's human nature to do this or that," but the more I see of people, the more I am convinced that there is no human nature, only the nature of being a human: needing food, drink, air, rest, et cetera. For every traumatic or life-shaping event you've ever experienced, another has experienced only a void in that area.

You can always tell when I've been doing my annual reading of 'David Copperfield' because I start to wonder things like this. I can't help it. There's such a variety of characters in that book, so many people who look at the same thing and come up with their own individual opinions and conclusions about it, so many stark differences between the warmth of Agnes Wickfield and the oozy sliminess of Uriah Heep, that I start to wonder whether humans, such as they are, have any real common ground with each other at all. I look at the people I know in my life and see the contrasts between them instead of the similarities.

08 September 2007

A Panoptic, Impartial View, Pt. 1


1. permitting the viewing of all parts or elements.
2. considering all parts or elements; all inclusive.


not partial or biased; fair; just.
-Random House Dictionary

Is it ever possible to have a panoptic, impartial view of anything? How can one's view include the entire range of the human experience, and still remain impartial? The tagline of the New York Times reads, "All the news that's fit to print." But what does that say about the news that's not fit to print? And who is it who judges what's fit and what's unfit? Even at one of the most respected and widely-read newspapers on the planet, it's possible to cast aspersions on the universality of their coverage. For every story that's in the paper, one wonders how many stories (and what kind of stories) didn't make it in, and why.

One's life is invariably shaped by background, access, education, memory, emotion, achievement, and that most fickle of all experiences, taste. As Shakespeare wrote,

doth not the appetite alter? A man loves the meat
in his youth that he cannot endure in his age.

So it remains with our imperfect minds and bodies. Who can say why one person loves a thing - a movie, a certain dish, a song, et cetera - and another cannot bear even the mention of it?

A friend recommended the film Ratatouille for the panoramic views of the Parisian skyline, but what is most memorable is Anton Ego, a merciless food critic voiced by Peter O'Toole, who said this about food: "I don't like food, I love it. If I don't love it, I don't swallow." Ego had already slammed the restaurant with a negative review once during the course of the film, and so with the pressure properly applied, the chef prepares the unglamorous Niçoise vegetable soup for which the film is named. Another chef exclaims in surprise, "It's a peasant dish!" Little could either know that one bite of this soup would take the critic far away from the chic French restaurant and puts him back in his grandmother's simple country kitchen as a child, remembering how she made him the same recipe when he was in tears over a broken toy. This unaffected "peasant dish" impressed the critic more than all the canard a l'orange and poulet Provençal in the world. Hardly what you'd call an "impartial" view, but it's a valid one nonetheless.

The panoptic, impartial view may be an unrealistic expectation, but like so many things in life, it may be the most pursuit of it that's most important. Once the pursuit of it has been abandoned, every piece of news or information that you ingest would have the same factual accuracy and accountability as the Weekly World News or Fox News. That's why there are elementary rules in the press such as "don't plagiarize," "don't fabricate," et cetera. Outside the press room, these rules are condensed even further: "don't lie."

It's a commandment. Look it up.

I can't anticipate that this blog will cover everything that might be desired or expected of it. And while I'd love to promise that it will live up to it's name, I can't realistically believe that goal to be realized, either. But, as in other areas of life, I'll certainly try.