GUSTER "KEEP IT TOGETHER"
Their sound is sunshine and lazy days. They enjoy clever wordplay
and shiny, pretty hooks. Do I even have to tell you that they used to
open for the Barenaked Ladies in order to further illustrate their smiley
limitations? But even if there's nothing magnificent here, every tune
pleases. If I had a beautiful summer home by a lake, this might be my
album of the year. But since I don't, I'll probably end up picking something
more muscular and unpredictable. After all, this much niceness can drive
a person to kill. B+
LIZ PHAIR "LIZ PHAIR"
The reviews have been so grossly, laughably idiotic that I had to think
hard for the last time I rooted so hard for an album to succeed. Not blasphemy,
not a sellout, not a career-ender. Not "Exile in Guyville" either,
but it's probably the most engaging record she's done since that one.
Plus, it rocks like AC/DC without the sexism. Yeah, the song about the
underwear makes me cringe, too. Ditto the first single, a hummable little
number I'd distrust no matter who was singing it. But my biggest complaint
is that she didn't embrace her sellout as brazenly as she could have.
Maybe next time. B+
GEMMA HAYES "NIGHT ON MY SIDE"
She's a sensitive female who can also rock the guitar if she feels so
inclined. And she often does on the first side, which is why it's more
impressive than the intimate, moody second side. There, she risks being
just one more Beth Orton: smart, anti-bimbo, sensible, a flair for electronic
sounds and restless nights alone. Nothing wrong with that per se, but
"Let a Good Thing Go" and "Work to a Calm" are so
bracing simply because they're, well, loud. Enough smart women
can do soft. Smart, loud females are another story entirely. B+
FRUIT BATS "MOUTHFULS"
After doing extensive research, I have determined that no one from the
Shins is in this band. But the confusion is understandable. Both groups
have an acoustic peaceful, easy feeling. Both crank up the amps in only
the most graceful ways possible. Neither singer would harm a fly. So how
come this duo reaches me when the Shins mostly don't? Even I didn't know
for sure. So I kept listening -- and kept enjoying this record more and
more. Despite vague references to clouds the shape of New Jersey, Eric
Johnson offers hymns, condolences, and kind remarks. And the music isn't
afraid of being flat-out soothing and charming. These guys are friends
with groups whose insular smugness easily irritates me, and yet this band
never falls into that trap. This record is no less evocative or affecting
because it'll piss off a lot of the hipster jerks trained to sneer as
such shocking sincerity. A-
MAN ON THE TRAIN, DIRECTED BY PATRICE LECONTE
Consider me the dumb American. Leconte's film is thoughtful and moving,
but his conceit of two mismatched friends yearning for each other's lives
is (I'll say it) hardly groundbreaking. It's impossible not to love these
two characters. Jean Rochefort and Johnny Hallyday are wonderfully worn-down
and heroic. But if you're looking for a French film that examines our
incurable obsession with the guy next door, go out and find Dominik Moll's
With a Friend Like Harry immediately. Or be content to wait for
its in-the-works Wes Craven remake. B
PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN, DIRECTED BY GORE VERBINSKI
A rarity: the hack blockbuster that actually entertains and surprises.
Johnny Depp could have sat back and let his role go broad, but his Jack
Sparrow is a figure of sympathy and humor. Geoffrey Rush could have chewed
the scenery, but his Barbossa is intelligent and dastardly. Everyone else
follows suit, even the director, who rises above his usually aggressive
competency to deliver rousing fun in the summertime. Chronically opposed
to handing Verbinski compliments, I give a lot of credit to a smart script
and a good effects team. But fair is fair. The film could have been a
lot more lazy, but for once the creative types decided to push themselves.
TERMINATOR 3, DIRECTED BY JONATHAN MOSTOW
Where John Connor was the worst part of the last movie, he's the best
part of this one. Nick Stahl has been great in everything from In the
Bedroom to Bully, and he's more than passable as this textbook
anti-hero. And being no Cameron devotee, I wasn't set to hate Mostow's
direction. After all, at their heart U-571 and Breakdown
were well-made retreads, and so he's perfect to do a sequel for this threadbare
franchise. For a film that has no reason to exist, this is solid work.
Better than Return of the Jedi. Better than Back to the Future
III. Now stop. Please. B
Tony Shalhoub, Tony Shalhoub, Tony Shalhoub, Tony Shalhoub. OK, with that
out of the way, what else is there? A show armed to the teeth with quirks.
Writers who devise mystery plots barely as challenging as an Encyclopedia
Brown whodunit. Side characters who will hopefully grow as the series
continues. It all boils down to Tony Shalhoub, Tony Shalhoub, Tony Shalhoub,
Tony Shalhoub, which is enough. But they shouldn't let that Golden Globe
go to their heads just yet. B