Sunday, April 28, 2013

It's A Bubblegum World: A Chewy & Delicious, Long-Lasting Playlist

Now that spring is finally here, we interrupt the usual reviews & musings to present a "Bubblegum Music" playlist. Fire up your Spotify or Pandora accounts and dial up the following sunny tunes:

1. Sugar Sugar - The Archies
2. Billy, Don't Be A Hero - Bo Donaldson & The Heywoods
3. Dizzy - Tommy Roe
4. Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes) - Edison Lighthouse
5. Yummy Yummy Yummy - Ohio Express
6. Saturday Night - The Bay City Rollers
7. Tracy - The Cuff Links
8. I Think We're Alone Now - Tommy James & The Shondells
9. I'm A Believer - The Monkees
10. My Baby Loves Lovin' - White Plains
11. The Night Chicago Died - Paper Lace
12. I Think I Love You - The Partridge Family
13. Easy Come, Easy Go - Bobby Sherman
14. Build Me Up, Buttercup - The Foundations
15. Simon Says - The 1910 Fruitgum Company
16. Heartbeat, It's A Lovebeat - The DeFranco Family
17. One Bad Apple - The Osmonds
18. Green Tambourine - The Lemon Pipers
19. Little Willy - Sweet
20. Gimme Gimme Good Lovin' - Crazy Elephant
21. Beach Baby - First Class
22. Indian Reservation - Paul Rever & The Raiders
23. Brandy - Looking Glass
24. Magic - Pilot
25. Na Na, Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye - Steam
Extra Tasty Bonus Tracks: 
26. Hooked on a Feeling - Blue Swede
27. Smile A Little Smile For Me - The Flying Machine
28. Bend Me, Shape Me - American Breed
29. Sooner or Later - The Grass Roots
30. Hitchin' a Ride - Vanity Fare
31. No Matter What - Badfinger
32. Beautiful Sunday - Daniel Boone
33. ABC - The Jackson Five
34. Want Ads - Honey Cone
35. Knock Three Times - Tony Orlando & Dawn
36. Come On Down To My Boat - Every Mother's Son
37. Judy in Disguise (With Glasses) - John Fred & His Playboy Band
38. Black is Black - Los Bravos
39. Every Beat of My Heart - Josie & The Pussycats
40. I Wonder (What She's Doing Tonight) - Boyce & Hart

Fun fact: Some of the "bands" who had hits in the bubblegum era were studio creations & the groups themselves never really existed (e.g., The Archies, First Class, etc.) Some singers like Ron Dante (who sang leads on #1 & #7 on the list, and Tony Burrows, who provided vocals for #4, #10 & #21) made a career out of fronting these "bubblegum" groups.

Here are links to Ron Dante performing Sugar Sugar and Edison Lighthouse with Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes)

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Heart & Soul of Charles Bradley

Charles Bradley sings like he knows what heartbreak, pain & tough times feel like. And he does. His first album, No Time For Dreaming, came out in 2011, when the singer was 63. It quickly garnered rave reviews; his gritty vocals and intense delivery won the singer many fans around the world. After a lifetime of odd jobs, bad luck and personal tragedy, he had become a success. His amazing story is told in the 2012 documentary Charles Bradley: Soul of America. On his second album, Victim of Love (2013), the soul singer evokes memories of the sounds of the 60s & 70s, while further establishing himself as one of the best soul singers working today. You’ll hear echoes of Otis Redding, Al Green & Harold Melvin, to name a few. But Bradley isn't just imitating the sounds of the past. He's using the classic soul style to make music that is just as engaging today as it would have been in the days of his influences' greatest successes.

These are stories about love, loss & pain, though a sense of hope & redemption does shine through on many of the tracks. The songs evoke Motown, Stax, and even the Philly sound of Gamble & Huff. There’s a vibe of depth & emotion running through every note, from the Motown psychedelic-era stylings of Confusion, the smooth vibes of Strictly Reserved For You and the powerful title track. Other standout cuts include Crying In The Chapel and the funkified Let Love Stand A Chance. The backing by The Menahan Street Band builds a strong foundation for Bradley’s intense vocals and lays down some cool grooves.

This is powerful, engaging music, performed with passion, heart & true soul. If you’re a fan of the neo-soul genre and dig acts like Bradley’s Daptone Records label mates Sharon Jones & The Dap Kings, this album is a must.  The disc is now available in stores, and also for digital download from various sources, including iTunes. Both Victim of Love & No Time For Dreaming are highly recommended. Here’s a link to a live performance of Bradley’s cover of the Neil Young classic Heart of Gold, and the title track from his current album:

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Awakening: A Flawed Ghost Story

I love a good, well-produced ghost story. Movies like The Haunting (1963), The Legend of Hell House (1973)The Sixth Sense (1999)The Others (2001),) and Guillermo Del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone (2001) are some great examples of what can be achieved in this sometimes overdone genre. The Awakening (2011) tries to evoke the feeling of those films, but only partially succeeds. Rebecca Hall (The Town) stars as Florence Cathcart, a woman in 1920s London who debunks fake spiritualists. It’s clear from the outset that she’s suffered a loss of her own, and that ‘s what drives her on her quest to expose these charlatans. She believes in rationality and science, and not the spirit world.

One day, a history teacher at a boy’s school asks for her help. The recent death of a student has been attributed to the sightings of a ghost; the staff wants her to investigate. Florence travels to the school, and rather quickly solves the mystery…or does she? Most of the students & staff leave for a holiday break, but Florence stays behind, feeling there’s more to the story. Strange events that can’t be explained start to occur. It appears that there may actually be a haunting at the school. Aided by the teacher, the school’s matron, and a boy who stays behind because his parents are away, Florence begins to unravel the mystery.  But the answers she finds may challenge her beliefs and change them forever.

Directed by Nick Murphy and co-written by Murphy and Stephen Volk, the movie looks great and has some eerie moments, courtesy of the cinematography by Eduard Grau. But we’ve seen this all before, and sharp viewers are likely to figure out some of the twists before the story’s conclusion. The metaphors (World War I’s horrors haunting the history teacher, for example) in the story don’t work, and aren’t fully explored. There are also a couple of characters that aren’t as well rounded as they could be; the creepy groundskeeper is pretty much a stock villain. The movie is well acted (especially by Hall and Imelda Staunton, as the matron) but it can’t make up for the faults in the storytelling, or an unclear ending that wants to have it both ways.

The Awakening is an admirable, but flawed try at an old-fashioned ghost story. We’ve seen more successful attempts at this type of tale in films like the ones I mentioned above. It’s not a bad film, but it could have been so much better. If you’re looking for a more recent spooky tale to view on movie night, try The Woman in Black (2012), starring Daniel Radcliffe. It’s an effective chiller that has some good scares, and a solid, well-turned story. As for The Awakening, the film is now available on DVD & Blu-ray and for digital download. Here’s a link to the trailer for the film:

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Ang Lee's Breathtaking "Life of Pi"

It’s a rare feat for a movie to successfully portray a character’s voyage of spiritual discovery. Ang Lee’s Life of Pi (2012) is one of those films. “Pi” Patel is a young boy in India whose father owns a zoo. He’s very intrigued by religion and spirituality, and decides to not only follow Hindu tradition, but also to explore both Christianity and Islam, which angers his traditional father. But Pi “just wants to love God” and experience him in different forms. Pi is also interested in the zoo’s Bengal tiger and wants to befriend it, but his father (who’s more of a realist) warns him that animals are not like people. He tells Pi to should stay away from the animal, and that he shouldn't expect it to act like a human.

When Pi is around 16, his father tells the family they are moving to Canada, where they will sell all the zoo animals and begin a new life. The freighter they are traveling on encounters a storm, and the ship sinks. Pi finds himself on a lifeboat with several animals from the zoo, including the tiger. They appear to be the only survivors of the shipwreck. As time goes on, it ends up being just Pi and the tiger stranded at sea. They have to learn to live together if they are going to survive long enough to be rescued. It’s an experience that will change Pi’s life forever and “make him believe in God.” I don’t want to say too much more about the story here; this is one of those movies you’re better off experiencing as you see it.

Ang Lee, director of such films as The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Brokeback Mountain (2005), knows how to tell a story with an epic sense of scale without losing sight of the personal side. The nature of this tale necessitates the use of a lot of CGI, but it’s not distracting here, as it can be in some modern films. In addition to the tiger, who feels real, there are some splendid visual moments that are truly awe-inspiring. The evocative score by Mychael Danna & the gorgeous cinematography by Claudio Miranda also add a great deal of atmosphere to the film. Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi for most of the movie, gives a wonderful performance, filled with emotion and depth. We go on this adventure together with Pi, and Sharma makes you feel like you're there on that lifeboat with him.

David Magee wrote the moving screenplay for this adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 bestseller. This is a story about journeys, both spiritual and personal, and how experiences like this can change our lives forever. It’s a film that will stay with you long after you watch it. All of the artists who worked in front of and behind the camera on the movie have done a fantastic job. Ang Lee was honored with a Best Director Oscar for the movie in February, and it’s well deserved. I’m a great fan of Ben Affleck’s Argo (2012), and at the time, I was a little disappointed that he didn’t win the directing Oscar. I have to admit the Academy may have gotten this one right, in honoring Lee for his work on this film, while awarding the Best Picture award to Argo.

Life of Pi is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for digital download from various sources. The Blu-ray edition features some interesting behind the scenes documentaries, covering the entire production of the film. The movie has also been released in a 3D Blu-ray version. For the purposes of this review, I watched the 2D Blu-ray, and the picture quality was amazing. You owe it to yourself to experience this powerful film. Here’s a link to the movie’s trailer: