Saturday, May 31, 2008

Friday, May 30, 2008

a James Bond primer, part 2

CONTINUED from yesterday…

Roger Moore, 1973-85

For many Bond fans, including myself, Roger Moore was the Bond that they were first introduced to. That is a shame, because he was also the worst. Moore brought the element of slapstick humor into the series, and all of his films are rather schizophrenic. Sometimes they try to be serious action/espionage flicks, but then moments later they become cartoonish.

Live and Let Die, 1973 **
The Man With the Golden Gun, 1974 **
The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977 ***
Moonraker, 1979 **
For Your Eyes Only, 1981 ***
Octopussy, 1983 ***
A View To a Kill, 1985 *

ABOVE: Roger Moore gets ready for a duel against adversary Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). Scaramanga was possibly the most intriguing villain in Bond World, but he was wasted in one of the worst selections of the franchise, The Man With the Golden Gun

Moore’s first couple of outings were shaky indeed, but he finally found his footing with his third try, The Spy Who Loved Me, which many critics feel is Moore’s best (my personal favorite Moore film is Octopussy). The Man With the Golden Gun was a missed opportunity, as it featured Christopher Lee as the villain/assassin Scaramanga, who may be the best Bond villain in the entire series. But the rest of the movie is so poorly done, Lee is completely wasted here. Moonraker is notoriously bad; Bond in Space as they try to cash in on the Star Wars phenomenon (Bond doesn’t actually go to space in the excellent Fleming novel). Moore then surprises with his two best Bond outings, but goes out with the nadir of the entire series. The only thing to recommend for the dismal A View to a Kill is the Duran Duran theme song.

Timothy Dalton, 1987-89

Dalton doesn’t really get a fair shake. His Bond was a breath of fresh air for fans of Fleming’s original conception of Bond. Dalton brought a much needed (relative) gravitas back to the character, going a long way to erase Moore’s slapstick legacy. The problem was that the two films he did were mediocre (not his fault), and audiences were not used to such a coldhearted hero who dispensed with much of the charm and wit of the character.

The Living Daylights, 1987 ***
License to Kill, 1989 ***

Pierce Brosnan, 1995-2002

If there was ever an actor born to play Bond, it was Brosnan. In fact, he was the producer’s first choice as the replacement for Moore, but due to contractual restrictions with his TV show ‘Remington Steele’, Brosnan couldn’t get free to take the part. But he got his chance in 1995. Brosnan is perfect throughout as Bond; the fault during his tenure lies with the scripts and directors. In two of his four films, they start off very strong and have the potential to be some of the better films in the series, but about halfway through both films it is like the writers, directors and producers lost their nerve and had to throw in the standard Bond clich├ęs just to be safe. I wish Brosnan had been given better material, because he deserved better.

Goldeneye, 1995 ****
Tomorrow Never Dies, 1997 **
The World Is Not Enough, 1999 **
Die Another Day, 2002 **

Daniel Craig, 2006-present

Sweet revenge. When it was announced that Daniel Craig would be the next Bond, Bondophiles were irate. Websites sprung up for the sole purpose of ridiculing Craig and trying to organize boycotts. A blonde Bond?! Blasphemy. Craig was seen as a tough guy actor with no charm or class. But once his debut as Bond was released, it was quickly hailed as perhaps the best Bond film ever made. I have to agree that it is at least the equal of some of Connery’s classics. Taking a cue from the success of the Batman reboot Batman Begins, the Bond producers decided to “start over” and investigate Bond’s early days. But instead of sticking with the Fleming timeline of Bond starting his espionage career during World War II, they wisely updated the character so he could get his start at the end of the Cold War. The result was a gritty, engaging and thrilling action film. On a side note: fellow Bond fan Willis and I had spent long hours discussing what needed to be done to re-energize the Bond films. I specifically recall saying that they ought to go back to the roots of the relatively simple but engaging plot of Fleming’s first Bond book, Casino Royale. Once Craig’s debut came out, I can happily report that they took most of our suggestions to heart.

Casino Royale, 2006 ****1/2

On deck is Craig’s next outing, Quantum of Solace, to be released in November of this year. I can’t wait. Something almost unheard of for Bond, this next one is supposed to be an actual sequel to Casino Royale and continue its storyline. Bond films have always been self contained, episodic adventures. It never mattered in which order you watched them. But apparently, this next film is supposed pick up “within one hour” of the ending of the last one and continue on. Very cool.

ABOVE: The teaser posters are already out for Bond's next adventure, Quantum of Solace. Kudos to the Bond producers for going back to Ian Fleming titles ('Quantum of Solace' was an original Bond short story by Fleming)

Thanks for sticking with me on this journey through the world of Bond. In sum, if you are a neophyte or just want to revisit the most iconic hero in movies with a new appreciation, I would start with these three selections: Casino Royale (2006), From Russia With Love (1963) and Goldfinger (1964).

Thursday, May 29, 2008

a James Bond primer, part 1

I know I’ve had lots of posts lately regarding cinematic heroes. For me, the ultimate cinematic hero has got to be James Bond, Agent 007 in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond is the most successful screen franchise in history, with 21 official films released so far, and another on the way at the end of this year. I’ve been a fan ever since I was a little kid, having read all of Ian Fleming’s original novels and short stories. Explaining why a young boy or young man would enjoy Bond is easy enough: action, gambling, exotic locales and even more exotic women, gadgets, espionage. What else do you want?

Fleming’s Bond is quite different from what Bond has become on the big screen. The books are a bit darker, with no gadgets, less action and more espionage. They are straight-up Cold War-era spy tales. For instance, Bond probably draws his gun once or twice in the entire book of ‘Casino Royale’. But for better or for worse, it is the movies that really define Bond for most of us.

ABOVE: Bond's creator, author Ian Fleming

To be honest, Bond fans (such as myself) give the films quite a bit of leeway. Some are great, some are really bad, and some are ugly. But they are all a part of the greater canon. What I have done below is give you a brief guide. I have grouped the films by actor portraying the world’s most famous superspy. There have been six gentlemen so far who have portrayed Bond: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton, Pierce Brosnan and now Daniel Craig.

I am leaving out two films, as they are not a part of the official United Artists/EON canon. In 1967, a bad slapstick spoof was made called Casino Royale starring David Niven as Bond, and also featuring Woody Allen and Peter Sellers. Also, 1983’s Never Say Never Again (essentially a remake of Thunderball) was released by Warner Bros. and starred Sean Connery in an ill-advised return to the character.

Each film is graded on a scale of * to *****.

SEAN CONNERY, 1962-67, 1971

For many Bondophiles, Connery is the one and only James Bond. Connery captured the danger of Fleming’s spy perfectly. You could believe that he was a physical threat, and being the 1960’s, Connery’s Bond was able to get away with a chauvinistic swagger that would not be acceptable today. I think back to the scene in Goldfinger where Bond has to talk business with his CIA buddy Felix Leiter, and he says to his female companion “say goodbye to Felix” as he sends her on her way with a nice slap on the ass. Ah, the good ‘ole days. It is funny in retrospect that Ian Fleming was initially opposed to Connery getting the role, as he thought Connery too “brutish and unrefined” to play the character.

Dr. No, 1962 ***
From Russia With Love, 1963 ****1/2
Goldfinger, 1964 ****
Thunderball, 1965 ***
You Only Live Twice, 1967 **
Diamonds Are Forever, 1971 **

BELOW: The key element to the continued success of the Bond films with young men. Below is Ursula Andress from Dr. No

BELOW: "Do you expect me to talk?" "No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!" (apologies for the garbled sound in the film clip)

Dr. No was an auspicious beginning, to be sure, but not all of the classic Bond elements were yet in place (no Q, for example). Jack Lord was probably the coolest Felix Leiter of the whole series. And Ursula Andress emerging like a goddess from the ocean…one of the iconic moments of cinema. Goldfinger is often considered the best Bond film, and it definitely has some great stuff in it. (See Roger Ebert’s famous essay on Goldfinger, where he outlines how it is the prototype for all future Bond adventures. Worth reading, an entertaining analysis.) The scene with Bond strapped to the table and the laser homing in on his nether regions may be the most famous Bond scene of all time. Goldfinger’s Pussy Galore has to be the best name for a Bond girl (Connery’s wonderful reaction when she introduces herself to him: “I must be dreaming”), although I am also a fan of Plenty O'Toole from Diamonds Are Forever. My money for the best Bond film ever is on From Russia With Love. The fight scene between Connery and villain Red Grant (played by Robert Shaw) is still exhilarating. Kind of downhill for Connery after his first three.


Poor Laze’. He had the impossible task of following Connery in the role, before it was accepted that multiple actors could play Bond. Ravaged by critics and fans alike at the time, Lazenby’s single outing as Bond has since been re-evaluated and is now considered one of the better ones. The film definitely has the trappings of the late 60’s, but Lazenby does a fine job. Telly Savalas makes for one of the more entertaining Bond villains as well. Had Connery been given this one to do, it may very well have been considered the best Bond film. Bond shows uncharacteristic emotion, even getting married (just to have his new bride murdered by Savalas’ Blofeld).

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, 1969 ****


Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Etta Knows the 'Real Shit'

As you might guess, I read liner notes for albums/CDs religiously. They are generally puff pieces for the artists, but sometimes there is great stuff there. I recently purchased The Definitive Collection by Etta James (my wife and I used her "At Last" for our first dance at our wedding). Etta co-wrote the liner notes, commenting on each tune. One of my favorite quotes is Etta's assessment of her performance of the Otis Redding classic "I've Been Loving You Too Long": "That's one of my best [tracks]. When it comes to love and feelings, this is the real shit - all the way."

ABOVE: Etta James delivers only the highest quality, vintage 'real shit'

Monday, May 26, 2008

Life on Mars?

Incredibly, last night we accomplished the same thing that we accomplished back in 1976, a soft landing on Mars. Sarcasm aside, it really is a big deal. Most Americans probably missed the story, but the Phoenix mission to Mars that landed successfully last night in Mars' polar region (the first successful landing on that part of the planet) could help to show, once and for all, that we are not alone in our universe.

After a pair of disasterous losses almost a decade ago, NASA was forced to scale back our Mars exploration programs. Over half of all attempts to land on Mars (by all nations) have ended in failure. But after the earlier polar lander crashed on the Red Planet in 1999, NASA went back to the drawing board and made some changes. Last night all of that hard work paid off.

ABOVE: Phoenix may be the key to proving that "life" exists or existed somewhere other than on Earth (artistic rendition, but this is what Phoenix likely looks like right now)

Being the nerds we are, my wife and I watched coverage last night of the dramatically dubbed 'Seven Minutes of Terror' (the time between entering the Martian atmosphere and touching down on the planet, which is the most likely period that something could go wrong). It was a very exciting and complicated seven minutes, where the lander had to go from over 12,000 mph to 5 mph in seven minutes, using the heat generated while entering the atmosphere to slow down. During the process, the lander had to enter the atmosphere, shed its heat shield, release a supersonic parachute system, use carefully timed thrusters and land softly on the harsh planet surface. The landing went off without a hitch, and NASA's future plans for Martian exploration may very well have been saved with it. The only other successful landing on Mars of this kind, "the soft landing", was in 1976 with the Viking rovers which landed in Mars' equatorial region. The other rovers that are still running around on Mars taking pictures landed through a different process. If we are to send people to Mars, which NASA intends to do sooner than you might think, we have to show that we can perform these "soft landings" regularly.

The key to the Phoenix is not the cameras that will send us amazing photos of a part of Mars we've never seen up close. The key is an eight foot long arm that looks kind of like it is part of a Tonka dump truck. This arm will dig in the soil of Mars. The reason we were so interested in landing in the polar regions is that it is believed that there is ice just under the surface, a sort of permafrost. Scientists think that this ice may contain organic compounds, the raw ingredients for life as we understand it. If we find that...I don't really need to explain the implications. If we find evidence in our tiny little outpost of a solar system of "life" on two separate planets, then the likelihood of many instances and possible varieties of life in other systems becomes astronomically high. That is incredibly exciting. Funny enough, some scientists believe that Mars is not even the most likely place to find life outside of Earth within our solar system. That would be Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. But for now, we'll be satisfied with finding evidence on Mars.

ABOVE: One of the first photos sent back from Phoenix last night. Doesn't look like much, but scientists are very excited about the patterns on the surface that you can see in the picture. This indicates repeated freezing and thawing, meaning ice and water.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

DEZ REVIEWS: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull"

Why is it that everything George Lucas touches these days (hell, the past two decades or so) turns to crap? He forever marred the perfect memories of the Star Wars saga with his new prequel trilogy. And now this. Although, to be honest, "Raiders of the Lost Ark" is the only worthwhile film in the Indiana Jones series. In fact, it is one of the most perfect action films ever made. The second one was universally acknowledged as crap. The third one is loved by many for some reason, I guess it was mainly due to the stunt casting of Sean Connery as Indy's dad. But, really, it was crap too and a total retread of the first one. You would think with Steven Spielberg directing each of the Indiana Jones films, that would at least provide a high quality filter from Lucas's crapiness. But not so.

I appreciate that these are supposed to be homages to the pulp comics and Saturday morning adventures of yesteryear. So things are not supposed to be exactly realistic. Yet when watching "Raiders of the Lost Ark", I could at least talk myself into believing that "yeah, OK, a guy could probably survive that." But throw any semblance of plausibility out the window here when Jones walks away from an A-BOMB BLAST when he is almost at ground zero.

Fine, even so. If it is done well and has some unexpected twists and turns, then I can forgive the implausibility. Nothing is surprising or done particularly well here. As Indy says himself, "same old, same old". The 36 or so jokes about Indy's age were totally unnecessary, you could see it for yourself on the screen. Harrison Ford, once so charming and gritty as one of the great action heroes, looks tired and like he's going through the motions to collect his paycheck. Karen Allen returning as Marion Ravenwood (the only interesting female character of the entire series) was welcome, but even she was not given too much to do this time around. Her character has lost all of the fire and maddening stubborness that made her Indy's match in the first film. Shia LeBouf does a fair job as Indy's heir apparent, considering the script he was given to work with.

I commend Spielberg for kicking it mostly old school and using real stuntmen vs. all CGI. That was refreshing. Although, the CGI that is used is pretty bad and completely ruins the spirit of the old films. CGI has no place in an Indiana Jones film.

ABOVE: Cate Blanchett's evil Russian: "I vill keel you if you don't give me vat I vant!" Or something along those lines. Harrison Ford thinking: 'when do I get paid?'

I find it astounding that Lucas, Spielberg and Ford pushed this film off for over a decade because they claimed that they could not settle on a script or story that was up to Indy's standards. So they greenlit this? This convoluted, tired, cliched story? My god, how bad were the scripts that they passed over? The villains here are evil Russkies vs. the old standby Nazis. It's 1957 instead of the World War II years. But that doesn't really matter. They still have those bad guy accents and expendible uniformed henchmen who can't hit the side of a barn with all of their firepower. Come on, if they are shooting at Indiana Jones from about 15 feet away with machine guns, at least let him get hit in the arm or something. I saw almost every ambush or cocked-gun-sound-behind-someone's-back-just-as-they-are-about-to-do-something-important coming before any of these characters did. Why? Because I've seen the other three movies. You'd think Indiana Jones would have figured that out by now as well.

Man, I need to go watch my "Raiders of the Lost Ark" DVD to remind myself why Indiana Jones was so special in the first place.

** out of *****

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

NBA Playoffs, round 3

The "second season" of the NBA grinds on, with the first game of the conference finals set to go tonight.

A look back...The Kobe Show (aka L.A. Lakers) handled the Utah Jazz without much trouble, beating them 4-2. Likewise in the East, Detroit took care of Orlando without breaking much of a sweat, 4-1. More importantly, they were able to get their series done quickly so the injured Chauncey Billups could rest from his injury. Detroit can't advance beyond the conference finals with Billups out. Boston continued to have more trouble in the playoffs than expected, going seven games against Lebron and Cleveland, but they did advance. The San Antonio / New Orleans series was interesting, and the frustrating, methodical and consistent Spurs handled the Game 7 pressure better than the Hornets and beat them last night in The Big Easy. (So JMW, your dreams of making it rich on the Hornets bet you placed in Vegas are officially dashed).

I did better on my predictions this time around. I said the Lakers in 6 and the Spurs in 7...right on. I predicted Detroit and Boston victories as well.

ABOVE: David Stern and the NBA brass want Kobe Bryant in the NBA Finals...

BELOW: ...but I think they're gonna get Tim Duncan instead (Duncan is the one being strangled)

Up next, we've got two great conference finals match-ups. In the West the Lakers take on the Spurs. Kobe, Gasol & Odom vs. Duncan, Parker & Ginobili. Awesome, can't wait. In the East we've got the only two great East teams: Boston vs. Detroit. Predictions are really tough at this stage, but here goes. I say Boston in 7 and San Antonio in 7. As much as David Stern and the NBA are salivating over a possible Celtics/Lakers final, I think San Antonio will finally win their back-to-back championship.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Rumour Has It...

...that later this week Al Gore will come out in support of The Dalai Obama. A friend of mine is a Texas Obama delegate, and word seems to be spreading amongst those in the Obama camp that Gore's announcement is coming this week.

BELOW: Al Gore might finally get a little revenge against the Clintons by helping to seal the deal for Obama

Friday, May 16, 2008

Nazis, terrorists and hypocrisy

Soon after George W. Bush's inartful jab at Obama (while in Israel to celebrate 60 years of Israel's existence and ensuing good times in the Middle East, W. compared people who would engage "terrorist leaders" in dialogue to appeasers who wanted to reason with Hitler before the outbreak of WWII), the Dems responded on cue with their canned outrage. I find it interesting that so many years later, few things resonate more acutely than bringing up Hitler and the Nazis. While not referring to Obama by name, it was clear who Bush was referring to. Subsequent White House claims to the contrary are just silly. Even Shrillary came to Obama's defense, saying:

"President Bush's comparison of any Democrat to Nazi appeasers is both offensive and outrageous on the face of it, especially in light of his failures in foreign policy. This is the kind of statement that has no place in any presidential address and certainly to use an important moment like the 60th anniversary celebration of Israel to make a political point seems terribly misplaced; unfortunately, this is what we've come to expect from President Bush."

She's right and she's wrong. Comparing Democrats to Nazi appeasers is not outrageous if you hold the view that you should not negotiate with rogue leaders. For the record, I don't think it is a good idea to categorically say you will not speak with any leader. Just because you have a dialogue with them does not mean that you sympathize with them or you have agreed to any concessions. Sometimes in diplomacy you must engage in dialogue with unsavory characters. But, if you hold the view that you should not engage in dialogue with certain leaders, then it is a legitimate comparison, and reasonable arguments can be made for that position.

Hillary was right in saying that it was not an appropriate forum in which to make the statement. As transparent as our political squabbles may be, we should keep a somewhat unified front when traveling abroad. We should leave our internal political battles at the border. It would have been one thing if Bush had made the comment at some press conference in the White House or at a fundraising dinner, but taking political jabs while abroad on a state visit...that is poor judgment. (Are you listening, Jimmy Carter? We should revoke Carter's passport.)

Bush's statement is not even consistent with the actions of his own administration. In the past, Bush has characterized North Korea and Iran as sponsors of terror (and rightfully so). Yet talks have occurred at the ambassador level with Iran, and many people in Bush's own State Department urge more substantial dialogue with Iran. We have also had similar talks with North Korea. True, Bush hasn't gone golfing with Ahmadinejad or invited Kim Jong-il out to Crawford for some bar-b-q, but he has sanctioned diplomatic talks conducted by his administration with both governments. This ties into broad, sweeping statements ("I will not talk with rogue leaders", "I will not raise your taxes") that come back to bite politicians in the ass.

I have always liked Joe Biden. His response to Bush's remarks was a simple: "This is bullshit...Since when does this administration think that if you sit down, you have to eliminate the word 'no' from your vocabulary?" Not surprisingly, Biden was my favorite candidate on the Democratic side.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Dez Reviews: IRON MAN

The latest in the unstoppable march of comic book-based summer flicks (see previous post on this subject) is Iron Man. As stated in my super hero movie post, I was looking forward to this one, since I have always thought Iron Man was one of the more intriguing comic book heroes. I am happy to say that the film did not disappoint.

Iron Man is successful on the backs of the actors. That is a refreshing thing to say in a genre usually dominated by CGI effects that render the actors fairly disposable. Much has been made of the perfect casting of Robert Downey, Jr. as millionaire playboy/weapons magnate Tony Stark/Iron Man. But the great casting goes beyond the title role. Gwyneth Paltrow brings more than you would expect to the role of Pepper Potts, and the always excellent Terrence Howard sets up the character of Jim Rhodes for what already has been announced will be an expanded role in the Iron Man sequel as sometimes ally superhero Jim Rhodes/War Machine. From what I understand from the comics, this is a very uneasy alliance, and I hope they will keep that dynamic for the film. And then there is Jeff Bridges. All of the talk around Downey overlooks just how great Jeff Bridges is in the movie as the villain, Obadiah Stane (any better name for a villain? Anyone?) Bridges builds the character nicely, and you can somewhat sympathize with him for his disdain for Stark.

But in the end, the movie is about Robert Downey, Jr. The choice of a recovering drug addict/alcoholic Hollywood wildman with prodigious acting talents to play an alcoholic, womanizing, troubled hero with prodigious talents may sound obvious in retrospect. But what comes through is that Downey does not look down on the material. In fact, he seems to absolutely relish the role, and that enthusiasm comes through in every frame of the picture. Director Jon Favreau knows how to get the most from Downey, and Favreau's own background as a comedic actor serves the film well, as it is full of comedic moments and lightning fast quips from Downey.

BELOW: A superior cast for a comic book movie. (From left) Terrence Howard, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robery Downey, Jr. and Jeff Bridges

As I stated before, I was interested to see how they would treat the political overtones of the original comic. Iron Man was the ultimate flawed Cold Warrior, who often unwittingly did as much destruction as he actually helped people. Whereas in many comics the politics are in the background or only hinted at, politics are front and center in the world of Iron Man. Stark profits as an arms dealer, and he uses Iron Man to right some of the wrongs that his own products have wrought on the world. The film wisely (and in a risky move) updates the conflicts to modernday Afghanistan. While it may be a stretch to believe that getting captured by Taliban-types is what forces Stark to realize for the first time the true consequences of his products, it does make for an interesting "origin story" premise (he is captured by Taliban-type terrorists who try and force him to make weapons for them. Instead, he creates Iron Man and kicks Taliban ass).

ABOVE: Iron Man kills more terrorists in one afternoon than George W. Bush has in eight years

Funny enough, the weakest parts of the film are the parts that usually save other superhero flicks. The action scenes and culminating battle between Iron Man and Obadiah Stane are entertaining enough, but Stark is so interesting that you sometimes find yourself looking forward to the next scene when Downey is out of the suit and is delivering great lines in a conversation. This is not to diminish the action sequences, which are adequate. But I found myself enjoying most the scenes with Downey in his lab creating Iron Man through some very amusing trials and errors.

***1/2 out of *****

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Dez Reviews: Lindsey Buckingham - 'Live at the Bass Performance Hall' CD + DVD

Only days after I posted my list of favorite live albums, I bought one that will most certainly take a spot in the Top 10. Most casual music fans know Lindsey Buckingham as the guitarist and one of three singer/songwriters for the most successful Fleetwood Mac line-up. The catchy hits of Fleetwood Mac are indeed delicious, but they do not really do justice to the talents of Buckingham. If you are more than a casual Fleetwood Mac fan, you know damn well that Buckingham was the engine behind the whole operation. Stevie Nicks may be listed as songwriter on her Mac hits, but Buckingham was as much responsible for the creation of "Rhiannon", "Dreams" or "Landslide" as the lovely Ms. Nicks was. Not that he needs the attention, as his own hits for Mac are just as timeless..."Go Your Own Way", "Secondhand News" and "Big Love", to name a few.

I will be the first to admit that Buckingham is a weird dude. He has used his relatively low profile solo career as an outlet for his less commercial side. His solo albums are alternatively puzzling, brilliant and frustrating. But put the man on stage and roll tape; that is the way to cut through all the crap. Thankfully he has done that for us with this new live album.

If you are a guitar fan, this combo CD/DVD set is an absolute must. Michael Hedges and Stephen Stills are the only two men that come to mind who can touch Buckingham as a rock acoustic guitarist. He's a fine electric player, as well. Six of the fifteen tracks on the CD are solo acoustic. He reprises his jawdropping reinterpretation of his Fleetwood Mac hit "Big Love" that he first unveiled a few years back on the Fleetwood Mac live album The Dance. But he delivers an equally compelling solo acoustic rendition of Fleetwood Mac's "Never Going Back Again", an almost classical reading of his own paranoid "Go Insane", and a gorgeous closer "Shut Us Down". Just so you don't forget that he can also shred on the electric, he plays a blazing 10 minute "I'm So Afraid" (another Mac chestnut). I also like his good humoured romp through "Holiday Road", his nostalgic soundtrack tune from 'National Lampoon's Vacation'. The band is solid throughout, but the focus is always on Buckingham.

This record is a wonderful balance of Fleetwood Mac picks and tunes from his solo career, with a generous focus on his latest release, Under the Skin. What were overproduced tunes on the studio album really come to life on the stage.

My favorite tune has to be the solo acoustic rendition of his minor hit "Trouble". He turns a good unsettled pop song into acoustic perfection here. I have probably listened to this track about 30 times in the past few days alone. The CD is great, but the DVD is just as worthwhile. Listening to these intricate arrangements is one thing, but it is an added joy getting to watch this criminally underrated performer in action.

BELOW: This clip of Buckingham performing "Big Love" solo acoustic is from Fleetwood Mac's The Dance, but it is the same arrangement that appears on Live at the Bass Performance Hall.

**** out of *****

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Dez's Top 10 Live Albums

Let me say from the start that I believe anything meaningful can be reduced to a list. Secondly, live albums are interesting creatures. I am more interested in a live album that takes the music somewhere else. I don't go to concerts to hear note for note reproductions of what I can sit at home more comfortably and listen to without standing in crowds amidst drunken yahoos screaming for "Freebird". Each of the ten records listed below take the music to a different place from where it was taken in the studio. Also, track selection is key. It has to stand on its own as a coherent work vs. being merely a greatest hits with crowd noise. Each of the selections below take those chances and moves beyond greatest hits. Without further ado, Dez's Favorite 10 Live Albums...

10. Kiss – Alive!
9. Van Morrison – It’s Too Late To Stop Now…
8. Fleetwood Mac – The Dance
7. Talking Heads – Stop Making Sense (extended edition)
6. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – Live 1975/85
5. Michael Hedges – Live on the Double Planet
4. The Allman Brothers Band – At Fillmore East (complete show edition)
3. Dire Straits - Alchemy
2. The Band (and guests) – The Last Waltz (extended edition)
1. Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Live Rust

ABOVE: Dez's favorite live album of all time, Neil Young & Crazy Horse's Live Rust

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Rush – Rush in Rio, The MC5 – Kick Out the Jams, Sting – Bring on the Night, The Kinks – One For the Road, U2 – Under a Blood Red Sky, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Four Way Street (extended edition), Genesis - Live, Led Zeppelin – How the West Was Won, The Who – Live at Leeds (super duper extra special extended seems they re-release this gem every couple of years with even more extra tracks. And each time addicts like me contribute more to Pete Townshend's bank account), The Rolling Stones – Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, The Corrs (and guests) – Live in Dublin, Peter Gabriel – Plays Live, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones (and guests) – Live Art, Stephen Stills - Live and Billy Joel – Songs in the Attic.

ABOVE: Out of all of my picks, The Allman Brothers Band's At Fillmore East is probably the most accomplished. The improvisational skills of that band captured at that time make this record a work of art on par with the best jazz work of Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Be sure to grab the version with the extended tracks.

Your favorites?

Saturday, May 3, 2008

NBA Playoffs, Round 2

Well, Round One is done (except for one series), and it indeed has been intriguing. But first, am I the hoops Nostradamus? Eh, not really. I got four right, three wrong, and one is still pending. My friend JMW (he also made predictions in the comments of my original post about the first round), did a little better. He got six right, one wrong, and one is still pending.

Before moving on to Round Two, some reflections on the carnage that has already occurred. The L.A. Lakers, led by Kobe Bryant, easily dispensed with the defensively-challenged Denver Nuggets 4-0. No surprise there. Utah defeated my Rockets 4-2. Oh what could have been if the Rockets had been healthy. Feel good story New Orleans Hornets beat the Dallas Mavericks 4-1, prompting the firing of Avery Johnson as head coach just two years after winning Coach of the Year awards and leading the Mavericks to their first ever NBA Finals appearance. And after an epic double overtime Game 1, the once promising San Antonio Spurs vs. Phoenix Suns series fizzled to a 4-1 victory for the Spurs. Suns coach Mike D'Antoni may be following Avery out the door. On the East Side, Orlando beat Toronto 4-1, Detroit over Philly 4-2, Cleveland over Washington in a contentious, nasty series 4-2. That leaves the most unlikely series to go to seven games set for a Game 7 on Sunday in Boston: Atlanta Hawks vs. Boston Celtics. The Celtics had the best record in the NBA, the Hawks had the worst record of any play-off bound team. All predictions (including my own) were that the Celtics would cruise in a sweep, with the Hawks just happy to be there. Not so. That is why I love the play-offs. If the Hawks win, that would be the biggest upset in NBA play-off history. My prediction: The Celtics win. But kudos to the scrappy Hawks.

OK, now for the next Round:

L.A. Lakers vs. Utah Jazz: Since I think the Lakers could go all the way this season, I've got to go with the Lakers. It is questionable whether the Jazz would have even gotten by Houston had Houston been healthy. I say Lakers in 6.

New Orleans Hornets vs. San Antonio Spurs: As much as I am rooting for the Hornets here (I love the team, it would be great for the city of New Orleans), I think that the Spurs' experience and play-off toughness will prevail. This could go to 7 (especially since New Orleans has home court advantage), but I say the Spurs win.

Detroit Pistons vs. Orlando Magic: The Magic are fun and dangerous, and Detroit has a tendency to play down to its competition, but I still feel that the Pistons will march on to an (almost) inevitable Celtics/Pistons Eastern Conference Finals. So Pistons in 7 (because they always make it tougher on themselves than it needs to be).

Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Boston Celtics/Atlanta Hawks: I do not see the Hawks winning a Game 7 in Boston, so this is most likely the Celtics. If that is the case, Boston over Cleveland in 6. If the Hawks do the impossible, then I would give the series to Cleveland in 6.

ABOVE: Congratulations to MVP Kobe Bryant. It was leaked that Kobe will be named MVP next week

These are all great teams at this stage. If my predictions come true, then we should have conference finals for the ages on both sides with Lakers/Spurs and Celtics/Pistons. Wow. I'm glad Kobe got the MVP. Once it became a race for first seed in the West, I decided that the MVP should go to Kobe if the Lakers took the top seed, and Chris Paul if the Hornets held on to it. Since it was a toss-up between those two and the Lakers took first place...congrats to Kobe.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Obama and Rev. Wright, pt. 2

I must say that I do feel somewhat vindicated in my original read on the Rev. Wright situation after watching Rev. Wright's recent lengthy speeches at the Press Club and the NAACP, and also Obama's response to them. Recall our discussions in the comments section of my original Wright post here. Rev. Wright could derail Obama's campaign. The controversy that won't go away has injected new life into Hillary's campaign just when Obama needed to strangle the life out of it, and it has left a lasting impression on many Americans who before were tentatively considering supporting a black man for the highest office in the land. As usual, I thought Obama did a good job discussing the issue, and it was clearly a difficult thing for him to do (SEE BELOW).

So, is this enough to put this to bed? If Wright himself continues to demand the spotlight and continues to openly show disdain for Obama's sincerity while at the same time reinforcing the point that Obama was a loyal member of this man's congregation for 20 years (the worst of both worlds for Obama, in a sense), what will be the overall impact on Obama's once positive, feel-good, all inclusive vibe that was so unstoppable just a month ago?

You just cannot give the Clintons this type of opening. They are ravenous wolves for this type of opportunity. Rush Limbaugh and right wing talk radio may come to soon regret their "Operation Chaos" campaign encouraging listeners to register as democrats and vote for Hillary in the primaries to keep the fight going. (This has evidently had a real impact on the race in the most recent primaries, starting in Texas going forward.) I have come to the conclusion that there are three strong political parties in the country right now: the republicans, the democrats and the Clintons. The Clintons have as much loyalty to the dems as they do the repubs. They do not care how much damage they do to the democratic party. This could be the perfect storm for Obama's once perfect campaign: Rev. Wright, McCain's free months running virtually unopposed so he can shore up support (and polls seem to indicate it is working for him), and Hillary's apparent determination to make a kamikaze run for the nomination (the democratic party being the plane she is crashing into the carrier in my rather tortured metaphor).