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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008
A trio of big names step into Abbey Road's famed Studio One this week.

Sundance Channel’s acclaimed Live from Abbey Road series airs the fifth episode of its second season this week (Thursday, July 17 at 10 p.m. Eastern and Pacific). The featured artists this time are all pretty big names and heavy hitters: Sheryl Crow, Hard-Fi and Diana Krall.


In Sheryl Crow’s segment, she discusses how fortunate she has been to have had a long career, talks about being in Abbey Road studios before on The Globe Sessions and feeling the weight of its history, and she reiterates many of the themes expressed on her latest record (maturity, how environmentalism becomes personal when one is a parent, calling for change), Detours. In fact, the songs in this episode are taken exclusively from that album, and it’s very clear why. The rehearsal and performance footage demonstrate that this is surely her strongest material to date (“Now That You’re Gone” is the showstopper here, in my opinion.), which is all the more impressive when you think about the fact that Detours is her sixth regular release.


Hard-Fi has only two full-length releases so far, but they’re still aware of the “vibe” in the most famous studio in the world (and quite keen to have a go at the piano used on “Lady Madonna!”). We only get two songs from them, “Tied Up Too Tight” from 2005’s CCTV and “We Need Love” from last year’s Once Upon a Time in the West, but both songs are so perfectly executed (and “We Need Love”, particularly, so suited to the surroundings!) that another might simply have sent viewers over the edge. Is it too obvious that I’m a bit of a Hard-Fi fan? Well, when you see and hear these performances, you’ll understand why.


Diana Krall’s segment takes the energy back down a notch, but it’s no less compelling. She speaks of her passion for her life and lifestyle and her eclectic enthusiasm, but her laid back, almost understated manner seems at odds with her words at first. That is, until she starts swinging at the piano. “Exactly Like You” is infectiously energetic and “I’ll String Along with You” is all the more sublime within the resonance of the room. It’s truly amazing to notice—especially while watching it on a television—how much of a contribution the environment really makes! It’s not just superficial ambience, it’s like Studio One is another instrument in the mix.


Though this week’s episode seems to focus more on the final performances than the rehearsals or interviews, it certainly doesn’t suffer for it. I meant what I wrote last week, and if Live from Abbey Road keeps coming up with shows of this caliber, Sundance Channel is going to have to expand its production schedule.



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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008

When it arrives in theaters tomorrow (18 July), Mamma Mia! will probably go down as one of the biggest hits of Summer 2008. It has all the elements that make for a bold box office champion - previous recognition factor, a soundtrack to die for, and a cast that crosses over many demographical lines. Still, if the movie only manages to make a small impression, or fails to fully realize its clear commercial aims, there will be one reason and one reason only for its collapse - and her name is Phyllida Lloyd. A noted UK director, specializing in theater, this is her first major motion picture, and it shows. Though she was responsible for the staging of Mamma Mia! when it played London’s West End, whatever skill she had along the boards really didn’t translate here. This is perhaps the worst directing job ever for an otherwise fun major motion picture (albeit one not helmed by someone named Boll or Ratner). In four basic film categories, Ms. Lloyd underperforms miserably. She turns a potential classic into a merely viable entertainment. Let’s being with:


Setting, Location, and Atmosphere
The movie, as in the stage musical, is set on an enchanted Greek island that is supposed to possess a kind of magical whimsy that draws lovers to their soul mates. It’s also the proposed home of the legendary Fountain of Aphrodite, a source of everlasting potable passion. Lloyd begins our invitation to the locale with a lovely shot - our lead Amanda Seyfried, singing “I Have a Dream” as a topaz blue sunset engulfs the atoll. We are then introduced to a random selection of shots that fail miserably to establish the rest of the surroundings. It’s all part of a plan that this director has for avoiding anything remotely establishing and certain. When we are introduced to Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgård, and Pierce Brosnan, (Seyfried’s three “fathers”) they too live in poorly defined areas and circumstances which require a kind of cinematic judicial notice to comprehend. Perhaps it’s all knowledge we don’t need, but when you’re about to have characters randomly burst into song, anything that can ground us definitely helps.


From this point on, Lloyd really destroys the ambience. While she has an entire Mediterranean backdrop to work with, she insists upon using fake sets, greenscreen vistas, and some incredibly awkward staging to realize her aims. “Mamma Mia” takes place on an old goat hut rooftop, while “Dancing Queen” moves from soundstage to seaside in a series of severe jump cuts. An ocean romp between Seyfried and her Brit boy toy Dominic Cooper is interrupted by a group of hunky scuba divers who proceed to dance like stand-ins from Spamalot. Lloyd may argue that it’s all part of a way of creating movie magic and emotion, but we’re so desperate to connect with this material that her hamfisted hackwork makes us angry. We want a vision of something otherworldly and ethereal, a fuzzy bubble blissfulness where love is illustrated as a particular moment and place. Instead, we’re so busy getting our bearings that we never fully understand where we are, and why it casts such a schizophrenic pall over everything.


Character Interaction and Clarification
Unless you walk in with a working knowledge of the stage musical, there is very little personal perspective offered by this director. She believes in the shorthand version of characterization, giving us meaningless shot snippets (Firth as stuffed shirt, Skarsgård as beery bohemian, Streep as long suffering hippie chick) where a line of dialogue or single scene conversation would have sufficed. This is particularly important when the third act ‘twists’ start happening. Firth finds out that he’s gay, Seyfried discovers that maybe she is racing to the altar to avoid her mother’s disapproval, and Streep shifts from independent icon ex-rocker to desperate and dateless. When she sings “The Winner Takes It All”, it stands as a moment of personal reflection and self-sacrificing triumph. To suddenly go domestic seems surreal. But that’s because Lloyd has failed to set us up for such a reveal. It’s the same with Firth. He has a very weird conversation with Skarsgård that’s supposed to be one of those clueless male mix-ups where neither gent fully comprehends what the other is saying. Instead, it feels like an incomplete experiment from a screenwriter’s work in progress.


Part of the reason musicals work is through our ability to identify with the characters. Seyfried’s desire to know her onscreen dad instantly draws us in. It’s a wonderfully universal conceit. But along the way, Lloyd and Mamma Mia! turn the need very inward. Toward the end, it’s so frustratingly insular that we’re no longer sure if the man’s identity really matters (the narrative feels the same way). It’s even worse from Streep’s point of view. While it is never clearly explained, her past with these men seems to throw her for an unspecified loop. Not only is their presence perplexing, but when we learn that she had romantic liaisons with all of them (Brosnan’s being the most intense), her behavior goes from quirky to concerning. What exactly is her problem, and why is this supposedly empathetic Earth mother unable to speak frankly with her own child? Of course, this is a musical, some will say, we don’t need such in-depth dissections. But much of the missing pieces here are Lloyd’s fault, the direct result of filmmaking choices that never once draw us into these people’s world.


Narrative Drive
Granted, this is a clothesline plotline, a connect-the-dots conceit in which certain songs must stand for certain story points. Catherine Johnson deserves a lot of credit for finding a way - awkward or not - of combining all these tracks. Sure, there are clunky transitions, and sometimes one wonders if ABBA likes the implication of what the music is illustrating (as in Christine Baranski’s cougar-come on as part of “Does Your Mother Know?”). But as long as we can follow the various narrative strands, we should easily be able to decipher what’s going on. Sadly, Lloyd’s limits behind the lens once again come to the fore as she struggles to make sense of this often jarring jumble. Nothing is set up contextually - Streep’s financial woes, Cooper’s actual career path, what any of the potential Dad’s really do for a living, the ex-rock star situation, the back-up singers’ circumstance, the reason for all the disgruntled Greeks. Instead, Lloyd just lays it out there, thinking we’re clever enough (or perhaps, adequately doped up on Swedish pop perfection) to care. It shows the inherent laziness - and lack of previous big screen skill - this director applies.


Even worse, the movie sacrifices the men for more girl-oriented goading. Fans of the original show will clearly miss “Knowing Me, Knowing You” (a planned highlight for Brosnan’s character) and an interchange between Seyfried and Skarsgård to “The Name of the Game”. While it may have been a matter of running time, or perhaps inappropriate casting (why bring on big names if they can’t carry even the smallest amount of a tune?), it shows that Lloyd is not willing to take a risk. She’s so unsure of how to deal with the obvious material that something a little more complicated simply gets extricated. The ending is even changed, moving “Take a Chance on Me” from a pre-wedding placement to a last act celebration of middle aged matron desperation. Thanks to this cobbled together approach, equally marred by a visual acumen that can best be described as slipshod, Mamma Mia! must get by on ABBA and actors only. Sometimes it succeeds. At other instances, Lloyd also lets them down. 


Production Numbers and Musical Interludes
This is perhaps the biggest problem with Mamma Mia! in general, something that most big screen musicals - jukebox based or original - strive to overcome. ABBA wrote some undeniable gems, ear worms that won’t leave your brain even after decades of the most dedicated efforts to purposefully purge same. They are so bright and bubbly, so pert and effervescent that they could almost carry the film by themselves. Sadly, they almost have to. Lloyd fails to fully understand how to bring song and dance to film, instead relying almost exclusively on a mob mentality to illustrate her tunes. Take the party number “Voulez-Vous”. The direction is mind-numbingly awful, the camera swirling around and cross cutting in such a randomized fashion that, what should feel exciting becomes chaotic and disjointed. It’s something that happens with other group entries like “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)” and “Money, Money, Money”. There is such confusion to what Lloyd puts before audiences that any enjoyment they get must be inferred from the sonic situations in play.


The one-on-one moments are a tad better. “Slipping Through My Fingers” has a nice mother/daughter vibe, though the lack of actual singing by Streep and Seyfried seems an odd choice for a musical. After all, vocalizing (even in post-production lip sync) is part of the purpose here. Going montage makes no sense. Similarly, there are other instances when the actors stop moving their mouths, even as their rendition of the lyrics come pouring out of the speakers. Perhaps the biggest offense occurs at the film’s climax, when Streep gives Brosnan a last chance brush off with “The Winner Takes It All”. This is her big ballad moment, a culmination of everything the character has committed to and stands for. And with an actress as capable as Streep at the helm, it should floor us. Lloyd, instead, turns this into a cockeyed carousel of mixed emotions, her whirling dervish lens never settling on the action long enough to let us in on the song’s significance. It just keeps dipping and diving around the actors, removing any chance that we might witness something akin to an actual performance. Luckily, Streep’s gestures save it in the end, ensuring that this will be one director who does not ruin her work through inexperience and incompetence.


It’s nothing personal on Ms. Lloyd. There is no denying her work in theater, but her limited TV time clearly did not prepare her for the challenge of making this movie. For those still convinced that she was the proper choice for this project, just take this impromptu survey - who would have done a better job here, Phyllida Lloyd, or Adam Shankman (the man behind last year’s equally buoyant Hairspray)? Or imagine if Rob Marshall (Chicago, the upcoming Nine) had been put in charge. Wouldn’t this film have functioned a whole lot better had someone like Frank Oz (Little Shop of Horrors), Baz Lurhmann (Moulin Rouge!), or even Julie Taymor (whose Across the Universe tried the same thing with The Beatles). In a medium that relies on the convergence of many competing creative elements, Mamma Mia! could have been a nuclear powered pixie stick, so satisfyingly sweet that we become instantly addicted to its comfort food qualities. Instead, it’s a half-success, stunted by someone who should have never been given a seat behind the camera in the first place.

 


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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008

I didn’t own an original iPhone. In fact, I’ve never had a data plan before, never purchased a piece of software for a phone, never played any phone games more complicated than the demos that came with the free phone that came with my contract (read any given iteration of Snake). And after swearing up and down that I was not going to stand in line for an iPhone 3G on launch day, and would maybe, eventually get one when the hype died down, I found myself driving 90 miles each way to a distant mall, swapping places in line with my wife every half an hour or so for three hours. When all was said and done, we both had shiny new iPhone 3Gs, which we spent what little was left of the day playing with and exploring.  It’s an extraordinary piece of machinery, really, and if any other company than Apple had pioneered it, it likely would not suffer the backlash it does—nor, however, would it likely be as popular.


Having brought the thing home, I decided to poke around the iTunes App Store, really the thing that gives the iPhone longevity as a mobile platform. In time, I might not need to take my laptop when I go on a trip, though we’re still a touch away from that. I purchased both Super Monkey Ball, a property I’ve had affection for since the GameCube, and Bejeweled 2, a version of the game which arguably started the popularity of modern casual games.


Super Monkey Ball is… well, it’s Super Monkey Ball, with tilt controls, which is admittedly pretty cool. It takes a little getting used to, and it’s clearly supposed to be the graphical showcase for the system, but it’s fun.  Bejeweled is exactly what it’s always been, but somehow my fingers might be fatter than a mouse pointer or stylus, because I’m having problems playing it as well as I remember being able to.


What really stands in the way of the iPhone as a gaming platform is partially what makes it so attractive in many other ways—its sleekness. With no dedicated physical gaming buttons or joysticks, its appeal to gamers as a gaming platform seems limited. But the reality is that as casual gaming becomes more and more popular, that doesn’t really matter to the bottom line.


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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008

A few days ago Will Wilkinson linked to this brief piece in the Harvard Business Review by professors Anat Keinan and Ran Kivetz, summarizing their research into consumer regret.


Our research shows that forgoing indulgences today can feed strong regrets later, and that near-term regrets about self-indulgence dramatically fade with time. These responses are so strong that we were able to influence people’s buying behavior simply by asking them to anticipate their long-term regrets.


The gist of this is that they are conducting research to support the contention that people are not indulgent enough in their consumer behavior, and they need to be persuaded to indulge themselves more. All work and no play, and all that.


People who unduly resist self-indulgence suffer from an excessive farsightedness, or hyperopia—the reverse of typical self-control problems. Rather than yielding to temptation, they focus on acquiring necessities and acting responsibly and they see indulgence as wasteful, irresponsible, and even immoral. As a result, these consumers avoid precisely the products and experiences that they most enjoy. Their hyperopia can inhibit consumption in ways that are bad both for their own well-being and for marketers’ bottom lines. We don’t advocate trying to motivate consumers to make ill-considered purchases, of course, but marketers can help customers make appropriately indulgent choices that they’ll appreciate over the long term.


The “of course, but” in that last sentence seems very telling. These are marketing professors after all. It seems to me that they are trying to motivate consumers to rethink their resistance to consumerism and are trying to encourage marketers to remind them of a future self that will nostalgically look back on that consumerism as a life well lived.


Our findings suggest that marketers of luxury products and leisure services could benefit from prompting consumers to predict their feelings in the future if they forgo the indulgent choice. For instance, a travel company might ask customers to consider how they’ll feel about having passed up a family vacation package once the nest is empty.
Consumers, too, can benefit from such prompts. In the words of the late Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas, “Nobody on his deathbed ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office.’”


This rationale is often used in defense of advertising—it helps consumers find their wants, and get more out of the concept of desiring itself by stimulating it. It unleashes our impulsivity, which is freedom in action, right? I’m sure all those people who thought long-term about the houses they were buying in 2006 feel great about their purchases now and are so pleased that they didn’t stop themselves from indulging.


If desiring things is in itself pleasurable—and it clearly is—then advertising does us the great service of stoking it. But desire is not an unalloyed good; it’s a cognitively draining state of contradiction—mixed in with the excitement and fantasies of possession and the motivation to achieve that it brings, it also yields envy and disappointment and dissatisfaction at the same time. The point of criticizing consumerist desire is not that it’s inherently bad or unpleasurable, but that it restricts us to certain definitions of what is pleasurable, and casts our dreams and regrets (as the researchers discovered) into a specific mold. Clearly we should take more action in the present moment, but that need not take the form of making purchases, as this marketing research seems to imply. Seems like similar studies could be contrived to suit this unconsumption motto: Work less, buy less, do more.


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Wednesday, Jul 16, 2008
Tracks six and seven...

America


The production here comes from Stargate, the Nowegian duo who laid the track for Beyonce’s “Irreplacable”. Dark, slow synthesizer chords that occasionally break into quick, clubby stutters with partially vocoded female vocals over a break-beat give this an emotionally detached, Euro-poppy feel. The song’s mood and Nas’ delivery are reminiscent of one his greatest-ever songs: “You’re the Man” off 2001’s Stillmatic.


“You’re the Man” was Nas’ mournful appeal for fans to wake up and recognize he was still the same Illmatic emcee at a time when his artistic relevance was being seriously questioned. “America” is a similar plea for citizens to break out of the mystique of our nation’s concept and recognize that things are not right; we are not past the fight for civil rights and we cannot remain prosperous forever. Both songs contain the seamless blend of poetry and prose that has always been Nas’ strongest asset as an emcee. His words induce chills whether or not you pay attention to what he is actually saying. In that respect, “America” is the most Illmatic-esque song on Untitled. America’s ambassador to the Queensbridge housing projects has grown into a worldwide representative of the African American experience with the same eloquence.


Nas’ lyrics here mostly deal with various hypocrisies present in popular opinion. He addresses the notion that hip-hop culture is destructive to society: “If all I saw was gangsters / Coming up as a youngster / Pussy and money the only language I clung ta / Claim ta, unrolled myself up to become one / Ain’t ya happy I chose rap?” and later, “Who give you the latest dances, trends, and fashion? / But when it comes to residuals, they look past us / Woven into the fabric, they can’t stand us / Even in white tee’s, blue jeans, and red bandanas.” He claims, “We in chronic need of a second look of the law books / And the whole race dichotomy / Too many rappers, athletes, and actors / But not enough niggas in NASA.” Some of his most powerful lines come in the third verse when he talks about the plight of women since our nation’s inception: “Took a knife, split a woman naval / Took her premature baby / Let her man see you rape her / If I could travel to the 1700’s / I’d push a wheelbarrow full of dynamite / Through your covenant / Love to sit in on the Senate / And tell the whole government / Y’all don’t treat women fair / She read about herself in the bible / Believing she the reason sin is here / You played her, with an apron / Like bring me my dinner, dear / She the nigger here.” The dark song end with Nas disturbingly pondering, “How far are we really from third-world savagery / When the empire fall, imagine how crazy that’ll be.”


“America” is the most poetic song on Untitled. It is a strong testimonial on the theme of oppression which, like the rest of the album, despite implication, never explicitly names the oppressors. This adds to Nas’ recurring notion that people of all colors and creeds have endured periods in which they were, figuratively speaking, “niggers”.


Sly Fox


Following a song that attempts to break the cocoon of popular thought comes this scathing examination Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and its ownership of FOX News, which has become the largest symbol of the American propaganda-machine (unless you’re a neo-conservative, which would make it the Huffington Post).


stic.man from Dead Prez provides a hard-thumping beat with heavily distorted hard-rock guitars to set the mood for Nas’ angry response to Bill O’Reilly’s bullshit campaign to have him taken off the list of performers for the “welcome back” concert to begin the first post-massacre semester at Virginia Tech.


O’Reilly based his entire argument around the song “Shoot ‘Em Up”, an out-of-context line from “Made You Look” and the fact that Nas had once been convicted on a gun-charge with no examination of the circumstances that led to it. He tried to portray Nas as some violent gangsta rapper who was just going to taunt a bunch of terrorized kids. He even went as far as to call for the firing of the university’s president. “Shoot ‘Em Up” was on Nastradamus, an album that was a consequence of the incredible, original version of I Am… being virtually the first major album to be leaked online in 1998. Corporate interests behind Nas’ music, not knowing how to handle such a situation, scrapped most of the album and forced him to record a bunch of commercial songs like “Shoot ‘Em Up” (violence sells) to compensate with two albums instead of one; the result was the uneven, official version of I Am… and the mostly bad Nastradamus. The line from “Made You Look” was a metaphor (who could expect FOX News to understand metaphor?). Finally, though I don’t know the specifics behind Nas’ gun charge, I know he is a successful man in a world filled with jealousy, living in a violent city; I would hope he has some protection.


Nas takes News Corp – which also owns MySpace – to task for enabling child predators and “monopolizing news / Your views / And the channel you choose.” He implies that their influence has spread across other networks in the best few bars of the song: “I watch CBS / And I See B.S. / Tryin’ to track us down with GPS / Make a nigga wanna invest in PBS.” He also calls FOX out for the hypocrisy in their condemnation of hip-hop in light of the violence in Hollywood and in shady foreign policy: “They say I’m all about murder-murder and kill-kill / But what about Grindhouse and Kill Bill? / What about Cheney and Halliburton? / The backdoor deals on oil fields / How’s Nas the most violent person?” Nas was smart to construct “Sly Fox” as an indictment on the entire machine behind FOX News instead of perpetuating a personal beef with one of its talking heads; Bill-O himself only gets a single shout out: “O’Reilly? Oh really?”.


With hip-hop’s status as a politically progressive art form, it’s a relief to see an artist putting real effort and research into attacking what might be the largest threat to liberal politics in America.


+ Parts: one, two, three


Tagged as: nas, untitled
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