Sunday, May 30, 2010

Penelope Cruz and Pedro Almodovar

Penelope Cruz is an actress that I have decidedly not admired for a long time. Unlike many, when she shot to fame with her parts in All the Pretty Horses, Blow, and Vanilla Sky, I didn't think she was a very good actress and didn't find her particularly attractive. But then Vicky Christina Barcelona came along and showed me what kind of actress she could really be when working with the right people (Woody Allen in that case). So I decided to go back and check out her Oscar nominated performance in the Spanish language movie Volver, directed by Oscar-winning director Pedro Almodovar. I was blown away by what I saw, which was a warm and commanding, alluring and magnetic work from a performer of obviously the highest caliber. As soon as I could, I checked out their newest collaboration, Broken Embraces, the pair's fourth time working together. It's kind of Almodovar's take on noir, except like his other movies, it's tremendously filmed in bright beautiful colors instead of the standard noir black-and-white.

Cruz doesn't have quite the part or performance that she had in Volver, but she still has a much more comfortable and enticing presence onscreen in her native language. Cruz's current fiancee, Javier Bardem, has said in the past that he didn't think he'd ever feel comfortable acting in English, because it wasn't his first language and he would always be having to think about what he was saying instead of getting lost in the moment the way he could be in Spanish. I feel kind of the same about Cruz. She is noticeably more comfortable on screen when speaking Spanish, which is probably one of the reasons her performance in Vicky Christina Barcelona is so revelatory (although it didn't hit me as brilliant until a second viewing), considering it's in both Spanish and English, but mostly in Spanish. For some reason, even though I don't with Bardem or many other foreign actors, I get caught up listening to Cruz's accent when I hear her in English, and I find her generally unappealing due to that. But in her element, Cruz is a wonderful actress who can command the screen like only a certain group of actors can.
So I'm planning on checking out some of Cruz's other Spanish language work, including her 2 other collaborations with Almodovar, and am actually looking forward to seeing Cruz onscreen.

Hockey - the band is much better than the sport

I ran across the band Hockey on the TV show Live at Abbey Road, where different bands record songs at the famous studio. Hockey was on an episode with two artists I've admired for a long time, Counting Crows and Melody Gardot, and naturally I thought "Who the hell is Hockey?" Well, they're a New Wave-y/Punk-y kinda band from Portland, Oregon that is like a poppier version of The Strokes. Or, at least, a band better at the pop elements and hooks that they put into their music. My wife immediately said "these guys are awesome, we need to buy their album", so we did (it's called Mind Chaos) and I've been listening to little else lately. Their song "Learn to Lose" is my favorite and I included a link to it down below. Hope everyone likes it as much as I do, although I does grow on me each time I listen to it, so don't give up after one if you don't care for it. And if you like it, check out their song "Too Fake" as well, or just get the whole album, it's one of the few recent albums I can listen to from front to back and not have a problem with any song.

HOCKEY learn to lose (official video)

Friday, May 21, 2010

An Education

I'm still catching up with some of the 2009 movies I wanted to see but didn't get a chance to see in theaters. I had really wanted to see An Education because it was the first screenplay by Nick Hornby, one of my favorite authors. It also starred two of my favorite "underrated" actors, Peter Sarsgaard and Alfred Molina. It's the story of a bright but inexperienced 16-year-old girl's affair with a smooth talking, cultured 30-something man in early 1960's London. Sarsgaard plays the man, Molina plays her father, and the girl is played by relative newcomer Carey Mulligan. It's a sort of coming-of-age drama, with Hornby's knack for every day comedy, a killer soundtrack and tremendous performances all around.

David (Sarsgaard) charms young Jenny Millar (Mulligan) when they run into each other after one of her cello practices, and again a few days later when they unexpectedly cross paths again and he asks her out. Eventually, he even comes by her house and talks her father Jack (Molina) into letting Jenny go places that he would not normally let her go. The parents become just as charmed by David as young Jenny is, and soon Jenny is awash in life experiences that she wouldn't have had if she'd stayed at her boring school with all of its boring teachers and difficult studying. Jenny mostly still manages to get high marks in her classes, she's obviously the top student of the class, even with setting off to all parts of England and eventually Paris with the smooth talking David. But her English teacher and the school's Headmistress (played in a tiny role by the great Emma Thompson) begin to worry that Jenny is experiencing a bit too much life for such a young girl. Jenny and her parents are much too blinded by David's charm to come to this conclusion on their own and don't listen when the thought is thrown in their faces. As Jenny starts neglecting school a bit more to experience life with David, the title An Education begins to take on new meaning for our young herione, as she may not be getting the kind of education that she needs.

Sarsgaard is terrific as David, effortlessly affecting a British accent. David certainly knows how to play people, and Sarsgaard keeps the character mysterious enough and occasionally sweet enough to make sure he get what he wants from whoever he wants something from. Molina, for possibly the first time I've seen him in his native British accent, gives a wonderfully layered performance as Jack, the father. He wants what's best for his daughter, looks out for her, cares for her, is often the butt of her jokes, and is heartbroken when he lets her down. Molina showed what a truly amazing actor can do with just a look. He can tell a whole story with it, and he's hilarious as well. Mulligan won and was nominated for many awards (including an Oscar nom for Best Actress) and the accolades are richly deserved. Her Jenny is taken from a young girl, to a girl trying to be a woman, to a girl thinking she is a woman, back to young girl (but a bit less naive) throughout the brisk 96 minutes of the movie and Mulligan imbues each moment with a genuineness that is engrossing to watch.

It's interesting to see Hornby, who usually tends to tackle middle aged men stuck in adolescence, take on the coming-of-age of a young girl. He has said though, "I think the moment you're writing about somebody who's not exactly you, then the challenge is all equal. I was glad that everyone around me on this movie was a woman so that they could watch me carefully. But I don't remember anyone saying to me, 'That isn't how women think.'" so maybe it isn't that different from normal for him. The screenplay is tremendous in the balance it gives to developing each character, with more than just the two leads feeling like full blown people. It's a really good movie all around, and one I'm glad I caught up with.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Justin Nozuka

When then 19-year-old singer/songwriter Justin Nozuka's debut album Holly came out, I was caught by the lead single "After Tonight" when I saw the video one morning on VH1 (you know, the only times the "music channels" play anything musically related). I didn't think he seemed particularly special, but had a nice sound and an interesting voice. So as I always do I did some research on the guy and found out how young he was and was blown away, especially as I listened to "After Tonight" a few more times and had it grow and grow on me. So I downloaded Holly (named after Nozuka's beloved mother) from iTunes and was soon enraptured by the young man's sound. Seeing that he was the chief songwriter, only sharing songwriting duties on 2 of the album's 11 tracks, I was further impressed by the maturity he displayed throughout the album. So, of course, I'd been anticipating the release of his second effort and snatched it up as soon as I could.

Sadly, the sophomore release You I Wind Land and Sea doesn't have the same magic. There's nothing necessarily wrong with the album, but there's nothing spectacular either. There's nothing on the level of catchiness of Holly's "Be Back Soon" or "After Tonight", although "Heartless" comes close and is probably the best song on the new album. There's certainly nothing of the emotional devastation of the first release's best song, "Save Him", where Nozuka dealt with abusive relationships in a more gut-wrenchingly honest and affecting way than I've ever heard it handled before. That song is a masterpiece, but there's nothing here to reach that level. Here he seems to oversing far too often. He's got a wonderful voice, with R&B type vocal runs in many songs, too many. It's like he's trying to lift the material up to a higher level, when really no songs outside "Heartless", and the groovetastic "Woman Put Your Weapon Down" are up to the standard he set on the first go around.

It simply seems like Nozuka hit the dreaded 2nd album drag (the sophomore slump as some call it) where he simply doesn't have his craft honed in such a way to be able to churn out the same quality of material as on the first release, when he had no pressure from a label to deliver an album. But since Holly is an album I like more and more every time I listen to it (and I liked it to begin with), I will still, undoubtedly, anticipate the release of Nozuka's third album, which is generally a good barometer of whether someone is a real artist to watch, or if it's all downhill from the debut. I think Nozuka will fall into the former category. I hope anyway.

I'm back!!!

Ok, now with wedding and honeymoon behind me, I can continue back with my blogging here. That's the longest I've stayed away, and I'm sure it'll take me a bit to get back into the swing of things, but I look forward to it.