Friday, May 30, 2014

Better Billy (Music Review: Billy Porter, Billy's Back On broadway)

We all know that Billy Porter not only can sing, he can SANG. I remember seeing him 1994 in the Broadway Grease revival and he blew the theater away. So I was really looking forward to hearing his new album ( I still play his earlier live album a lot) and a lot of things have changed since he was Teen Angel. He is now a Tony-winning actor for his role in the Broadway hit "Kinky Boots," where he still plays his tole as Lola nightly. Looking at the song list, it seems exactly like the song list one would expect from a Billy Porter album but surprise, he doesn't scream all these songs as one might think. He shows great restraint, and it makes for an even better album than one would have in mind. There are gospel and soul in a lot of the arrangements, especially in "But The World Goes Round," and "Don't Rain On My Parade." While these are pleasant covers, they don't really stray too far arrangement-wise. I like it when the songs gets him challenged a little bit, like on the lilting "I've Gotta Be Me," or the stunningly quiet take on "I Am Changing." (He does an all-out version of "And I Am Telling You" on his earlier album and I thought he would take a similar route here)  I also like his swagger in "Luck be A Lady," though his swagger is softer (and jazzier!) Kinky boots fans will find "I'm not My Father's Son" appealing, and Cyndi Lauper shows up in the ubiquitous "Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy" duet.  I found his funereal "on The Street Where You Live" a little too out-there, faux-soul-ish almost. While I enjoyed the album a lot, I wasn't wowed by it, and I find tracks resonate better for me played randomly rather than as a full album.   Still it's a good souvenir of Mr. Porter's wondrous and flexible vocal instrument.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Once You Go Black (Perfume Review: Elizabeth & James Black)

I have seen Elizabeth & James Black (and White) at Sephora but I wasn't really interested in trying them because, well, they are by the Olsen sisters, Mary Kate and Ashley.  You know, the Full House twins. I mean, I know that their clothing line is respected (Barney's carries them!) but I filed this in my mind under vanity celebrity fragrances. But I kept on reading good reviews about the scents, so when I was at Sephora, I immediately went to test both. It was an OMG moment, really. Black was stunning. Sephora lists three notes: violet, sandalwood, and vanilla. And yes, they are all there, mixed stunningly. You get whiffs of all three but none of the notes stand out. And then it becomes complex - I get mixed woods (cedar?) and some cinnamon, and frankincense. It's so rich and dark that you can close your eyes and swear it was a Serge Lutens. (It's from a nose who usually does scents for Amouage) Actually, I think this comes closer to a heavier version of Costes. The drydown in magnificent, reminiscent of the heart of Tom Ford's Oud Wood, but much less oud-y. I am suddenly obsessed with this scent, and want a full bottle so bad. I tried so hard to restrain myself and not get it, but I cannot tell you how long I will be able to resist. This is the best designer middle/low fragrance I have smelled in a long, long, time. Trust.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

If You Cook It, They Will Eat It (Movie Review, Chef)

It's been a long time since Jon Favreau has made a small  film - he is known now more for his Iron Man movies - and "Chef" is his return to the his indie roots.  The movie is the story of a celebrity chef, played by Favreau, who gets caught in an artistic rut, and gets a bad review from a food blogger. He then goes through a breakdown, culminating in a viral video that gets caught on YouTube. he then goes on a journey to "rediscover" himself and his cooking. This is a well made comfort food of a movie. It tells of how social media affects businesses both in building it, and destroying it. In some sense, it's a paint-by-numbers effort - I don't have to tell you how you think the story will turn out, but it has a kitchen full of honest performances that you cannot help but eat everything they serve (pun intended) Favureau never looked more relaxed, and John Leguizamo, as his side-kick is the perfect foil. Even Sofia Vergara manages to give a seet understated performance. And it's a foodie's dream movie - there are endless scenes of food that made my stomach grumble (I especially want to copy his version of the grilled cheese sandwich) For someone, like myself, who does not really enjoy movies about monsters and mutants, this is perfect counter-programming.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The New Normal (Television Review: The Normal Heart)

Thank God for DVR.  The television movie version of "The Normal Heart" was such an emotional watch for me that I had to stop it a couple of times. It really is tough to relive a painful part of history, especially for me because, for a good part, I was there. The movie version of "The Normal Heart" is finally here, and thank God for that. I think this is a very important story to tell, and I suspect that there will be a lot of people who will see this. Larry Kramer wrote the screenplay from his play which tells the story of Ned Weeks (which is basically Kramer himself) who was one of the spearheaders for the fight for AIDS recognition. He does a good job of "opening up" the play. Ryan Murphy directs it with restraint, without the camp of Glee or American Horror Story. His pacing s a bit rushed, which would work well with the MTV generation. I wish it had lingered a little bit on some parts to fully savour them, but I do understand what he needed to do, and achieved. Mark Ruffalo is fantastic as Weeks, and he even managed to get some of Kramer's tics and mannerisms. But he is such a charismatic actor that sometimes don't see the brittleness of the Weeks character.Matt Bomer, as Felix Turner, is getting much-deserved raves - he injects a lot of humanity in hsi character, and his physical transformation is jarring. I bet he gets at the very least an Emmy nomination. Julia Roberts is a little too "Julia Roberts" at times, and at first I thought she had unease, but I warmed up to her eventually. (I am on that small list of people who didn't like Ellen Barkin's screechy performance on the last revival) I also have to give props to Jim Parson's subtle performance. In a movie of highlight after highlight, he gave a more subtle performance compared to the rest of the crew. I have some quibbles with the film, but I have to admit I shed tears - a lot of them. This is a piece that still resonates, still connects, and still slays. I had this imaginary vision of reimagining the movie had it been directed by Barbra Streisand, but i shouldn't have. Ryan Murphy did a great job, and will be applauded come awards season time. 

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Not So Plain Jane (Stage Review: Jane Monheit At Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center)

Jane Monheit's voice is lush, supple, rich. Truth be told, I sometimes cannot listen to an album of hers in one sitting - the richness can be overwhelming Yet, as tracks, they always satisfy. That voice filled the Cabaret Jazz room at The Smith Center Friday night, and it reached every nook and cranny. It commanded, it powered it, and you had no choice but to be filled with it. I have not seen Ms. Monheit live in a long time. She wasn't as big a star then, and it is fantastic to see her a lot more seasoned. She definitely is a lot more comfortable on stage, and her patter reveals a little girl personality that is cute and appealing, though at times it borders on twee. But it's the voice, that's what's front and center and she brought it. Highlights for me include a melancholy "Born To Be Blue," an effervescent Judy Garland medley of sad songs (The Boy Next Door, The Man That Got Away, etc) and a slow burning "I'm Glad There Is You." Gershwin's  lightweight "My One and Only" suffers from the weight of her voice. Clint Holmes came up to duet on "Everytime We Say Goodbye," and their voices blended well enough.  I sometimes get hot and tepid on her melisma-like improvisations cause sometimes I feel they are too rehearsed. But that's just me being critical - she was in fine form, and in a perfect venue. It was as close to a magical night as one would get. In this world of ordinary singers, I am glad there is Jane.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Pink Pffft (Perfume Review: Jo Malone Silk Blossom)

Oh, I was so ready to love Jo Malone's new limited edition release, Silk Blossom.  I mean, look at that beautiful tasseled bottle. And they even have it available in the perfumista-friendly 1 ounce bottle. So I sampled it with great enthusiasm and electric excitement, and then...pffft. I was just so ....underwhelmed. By no means it is a bad fragrance. It's a fruity floral that's pleasant. But it;s also safe, boring, and quite ordinary. The notes say it has apricot and jasmine, but I do not detect that. I do get some "pink" florals - peony maybe, and the ever-present pink pepper. The notes could have been culled from any generic department store fragrance out there. The dry down is some light musky floral - nice, but you have smelled it a million times before and I bet you wouldn't be able to distinguish this from a blind nose test. What else is there to say? For Jo Malone price points, you would expect something better, something more unique, something that lasts a more remarkable impression. As much as the bottle would look do great in my collection, I can think of better scents to spend my money on.

The One I Hate (Book Review The One & Only, Emily Giffin)

Well, it had to happen. After loving Emily Giffin's past six books, her seventh book's charm has eluded me completely. Her books have always been "appointment reading" for me: I would buy them the day they are released and read them instantly. I hated this book. I didn't care about any of the main characters, and the main love story was so creepy it made my skin crawl. I couldn't wait to finish it so I can get rid of them in my life. Plus, I felt I was manipulated into liking the love story by setting up the "alternative."  There's a lot of sports-related stuff in here, and although I don't understand football all that much, I tried to play long but in the end, it was too much. Frankly, I thought that stuff was a little too self-indulgent. I really hope Ms. Giffin writes her next book soon so the taint of this book could be erased from her oeuvre.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Spring Is Here (Music Review: Celia Berk, You Can't Rush Spring)

I can't remember the last time I heard an album and told myself, "Wow. This is exquisite." That was exactly my thought when I listened to Celia Berk's "You Can't Rush Spring."  I know it's only May, but this album would be hard to beat as my favorite album of the year. Berk's lush alto could sat times be a voice you may pass by, but she has intelligent interpretive choices, and her elegant song selection makes this album memorable.  Ann Hampton Callaway's "You Can't Rush Spring" is a song I will listen to till the day I die, and at first I resisted Berk's lilting, swing version here, until i read her liner notes and got that she was trying to convey a "glass half full"  interpretation.  Actually, her positive attitude permeates through out her album: she pushes the calm fulfillment of "Rain Sometimes," (for another great version of this, check out Pinky Winters' version) and you really feel the eternal gratitude in "I'm Glad There Is You."  Another standout for me is "I've Been Waiting All My Life," From the musical Ballroom, and Judy Garland's "Friendly Star," which in here has never sounded more modern. As a matter of fact, I can't think of a bad track in here, and it's so cohesive and rounded that each song fits where it should be, not a note out of place. Alex Rybeck's arrangements give all the song a sheen that enhances their polish. I have played the album now three times, and each time I hear a song, I still discover something new.  This record is like  a springtime that blossomed just in time.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

There's Always A Rainbow (Book Review: Chasing Rainbows, Kathleen Long)

Since I have such a huge TBR pile, I made a little experiment of picking the oldest unread book on my Kindle. It's Kathleen Long's "Chasing Rainbows," and if I am not mistaken this was a freebie from Amazon. I don't know why I have passed this novel by, and it goes to show how I probably have a lot of hidden gems hiding on my reader. This is a great book: simple, heartfelt, and touching. Bernadette is down in the dumps when the story begins: her father just passed away, her husband dumped her for a pregnant mistress, and she quits her job because of an abusive boss. But the book isn't really a downer. While Bernadette can be a bit of a pessimist, you root for her because you see that she has a kind heart. She goes on a journey and is triumphant in the end. It's a feel good novel that made me miss the characters the second I finished reading the last chapter.

The Buyer's Market (Love For Sale, Episode 2, BBC4, United Kingdom)

The first episode of "Love For Sale" dealt with the people selling sex, and now in the second and final episode, Rupert Everett now explores the buyers. He starts with the kink, of course, first filming a man who frequents a dominatrix (some of the scenes are too graphic, even for me, though in a non-titillating way)  He then interviews the man, masked in leather, and he reinforces he is just a normal guy looking for his kind of release. He moves on to a rich business man who has spent L150,000 on Chinese massage girls in two year's time. I found it a little boring that Everett focused more on straight men buying female prostitute. I think a little variety would have been more interesting: a gay man buying sex, for example, or how about a woman purchasing a male prostitute because she is not getting sexual satisfaction from her partner? He ends with an interview with the comedian Russell Brand, who talks about his experience with sex workers. Interesting factoid: his first sex was with an "exotic Filipina" who he fell in love with. In the end, Everett arrives on a conclusion that the men he interviewed were more looking for physical release, and those really have no relation to the emotional states. News Flash -- everyone knows that.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Lowe's Life (Book Review: Rob Lowe, Love Life)

I read Rob Lowe's first memoir, and while I was mildly entertained, I don't remember much about it. I remember thinking it was not a dishy book. So I shouldn't have been surprised that his new book "Love Life" would be similar in tone and content. A lot of the book focuses on his experiences as a father. There is a chapter in the book that is excerpted everywhere where he ruminates about his son going to college. It's the best chapter in the book: poignant and well-written. The rest, while as well-done, just doesn't appeal to me - endless sports references, child-raising tips, marriage stuff. I am sure it appeals to a lot of people, just not for jaded old me. With the title being "Love Life," I thought he would focus more on his past loves - and that would have been a juicy tome - but he is too much of a gentleman for that book, which makes the book just too bland for my taste.

Monday, May 12, 2014

A Bouquet Of Roses For My Mother (Perfume Review: A*Maze, The People Of The Labyrinth)

Yesterday, for Mother's Day, I wanted to wear a rose scent in her honor, as she loved roses, and loved rose scents. She used to wear Tea Rose, and I can't believe I don't have a bottle of it. I think when I made my big move three years ago, I had an almost-empty bottle of it and it never made the five thousand mile trek. As I was looking through my collection, I realized I have not worn one of my favorite rose scents of all time, The People Of The Labyrinth's A*Maze. It's one of the richest rose scents out there - it's dark, full-bodied, boozy, oud-y before it was trendy, and in the end, it is still a rose. You get the bloom at first spritz and while it seems like it is going nowhere, you realize that it has nuances that may not seem showy, but trust me, it's there. There's saffron that makes it jammy, there's a citrus that makes it bright, and there's civet that gives it a rough edge. I remember that this was one of my very first niche scents, and I read now that it has become a cult classic. Come to think of it, I wonder if this still as widely available as it was before, and I checked the POTL website and it seems to be still in circulation. I am as amazed (ehem) with it as when I first sniffed it, and I think it's the perfect tribute scent for my mom. (She would have loved this)

Sunday, May 11, 2014

That Certain Summer (Book Review: The Summer Invitation)

Charlotte Silver's "The Summer Invitation" is an introspective coming of age novel. It tells the story of Franny and her older sister Valentine who travel and live in New York City for the summer upon an invitation from their mother's best friend. They stay at an apartment in Greenwich Village. In a course of a season, they become different people. I loved this book. It's a Valentine to New York City, and for those people who have fallen in love with New York City, you will feel a sentimental pang. But I think even if you have fallen for another city, you will still feel the emotion of falling hard for something so bad it changes you. The story is told from the point of view of fourteen year old Franny, and is marketed as a YA novel. I think that it is more a story for adults, though. It's very wistful, and quite poignant, and would appeal more to people who have already lived lives.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Isn't It Bromantic? (Movie Review: Date And Switch)

It would be easy to hate on "Date And Switch." As a film, it's pretty clunky, and as a comedy, it really isn't laugh-out-loud funny. But if you look hard enough, it has a big old gay heart. Director Chris Nelson should have focused more on the heart of it: a story about friendship. It poses a very interesting question, one that I am sure has touched a lot of people. What if you found out that you best friend, one you have known since childhood, was gay? Would you treat this person differently? Would you be shocked? In this day and age, this may be a non-issue. (I mean, the first openly gay football player has just been drafter)  On one hand, the film is successful in showing that any ordinary gay can be gay, but it also shows gay life in stereotypes. But maybe being politically correct isn't the tone of this film, as it is meant to be one of those raucous teen flicks, along the lines of American Pie. The acting mostly rises above the material, especially the two leads, Nicholas Braun and Hunter Cope. I think all in all this film shows progress. Even though the issue of sexual orientation is made a big deal, you can see that in today's youth, it's basically a non-issue.

Who Traveled In And Out My Door (Book Review; To All The Boys I've Loved Before, Jenny Han)

I remember binge-reading the "The Summer I Turned..." series and knew I would always read anything by Jenny Han. So it turns out she has a new novel out, "To All The Girls I've Loved Before," and I read it as soon as I could. I love it. You know why? I thought that "hopeless romantic" gene in me had already left, but I realized it only takes a novel like this for its spark to get reignited inside me. She crafts a great character in Lara Jane, the protagonist in this novel. Lara Jane is a lot of things - she is lovable, infuriating, but above all, she is a real three dimensional person. You may not agree with some of her choices, but I bet you definitely can relate to how she is feeling and the you will definitely understand why she reacts based on those feelings. And it was nice to see old jaded me still get somewhat surprised but how the story twists and turns here. Yes, I know that there isn't a resolution in the end of the novel - I liked that we are all free to interpret it based on how we feel about the characters - but that may be more because this is the first book in a series. I don't know if I can wait till the next installment. 

P.S. I wonder if the teen market realizes that the title is based on a 80s pop hit by Julio Iglesias?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Green Ginger (music Review, Ginger Bess, Give me the Simple Life)

Another day, another jazzette. This time is someone called Ginger Bess, and minor sleuthing on the internet shows that she is from Utah. Didn't I just write about a Utah jazzette? They are all a blur sometimes. Anyway, her version of "I'll Be Seeing You" popped up randomly on my iPod and I was stopped by it, thinking" she isn't bad." So I went and listened to her full album. Honestly, i wasn't as impressed as at first listen, but it wasn't a burden. She is clear-voiced, and i read that she is a mezzo soprano. She is certainly singing from the lower part of her register if that is the case. Her singing is a little more mannered than I normally like, but on some songs she is more relaxed.  As I previously mentioned, her "I'll Be Seeing You" still holds up after repeated playings.  And I liked that she mixes it up with her song selections: there's a great "Arthur's Theme" here, the Billy Joel "Honesty,"  and the Mumford & Son's "Not In Nottingham." (Though her version of the latter is a bit uncomfortable to listen to)  Being an actress, she knows how to insert some drama into the songs, but at times you can still see how green she is. She will only get better. 

You can download her album here in one of those name-your-price options.

Rocky Read (Book Review: On The Rocks, Erin Duffy)

I'll get it out of the way. I was disappointed with Erin Duffy's new novel, "On The Rocks." I think it is because I liked her novel "Bond Girl" so much that I was so excited to read this new novel, and it was just...meh. It is the story of Abby, who gut dumped on Facebook while she was trying on her wedding dress. Nice premise, but it just moved so slowly after, and most of the characters in the novel were unlikeable that it was tough for me to engage. Plus, maybe the whole dumped-and-dating scenario no longer appeals to me, and not to mention that most of the characters were acting juvenile. (Or am I just getting old) I may have felt better if I was reading this at a beach somewhere. But I am nowhere near a body of water, and I felt the novel was tedious and a chore to get through.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Frat Bastards (Movie Review: Neighbors)

I am so not the target market for "Neighbors."  But I have been hearing fantastic talk about it - Ellen Degeneres calls it the funniest movie she has seen in a long time - plus it has Zac Efron, whom Seth Rogen sescribes as "the perfect specimen, like he was put together in a gay guy's lab" so I said what's 90+ minutes to waste watching it?  I did, and I survived. I am sure this movie will have tons of fans - I predict a cult classic along the lines of Animal House - but I am unmoved by it. But I wasn't supposed to be, I guess. Directed by Nicholas Stoller, it doesn't seem to have a coherent story. This film is a series of skits, one raunchier than the other. I wonder in this day and age if ti would still shock anyone. Gags upon gags - physical, sexual - hit you one after another that you have no choice but to laugh. You will be *FORCED* to laugh seems to be its motto. Everyone's game - Rogan seems to be playing himself (and he does say in interviews that the premise seems to have been inspired by his experience with his wife after having a baby) and Byrne is equally adept at trying to push envelopes. Efron is fine as the President of the Fraternity, and I appreciated that they put some kind of texture in his character. He attempts to add some depth to his Teddy, and is successful as the script allows (There's only so much one can do)  Dave Franco is equally fine, and gives his character a modern subtext. Throughout the movie, I was at odds rooting for anyone - they all seem despicable to me yet the actors have enough to charm to woo. But in the end, I felt like I spent time with people I normally would never even associate with.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Skin On Skin (Television Review: Love For Sale, Mondays on BBC4 England)

In this ever changing world, a lot of major cities seems to be really losing their edge. It started in New York City a long time ago, and Rupert Everett has proclaimed that it has also affected London, particularly SoHo where the "seedy" places are disappearing bit by bit. Perhaps this is the reason why Everett embarked on a documentary called "Love For Sale." (It is a two part documentary on BBC4 in England) On the first part, "Why People Sell Sex," Rupert explores the  various ways and reasons why people sell their skin for money. Are they victims, or are they really in control? It may be interesting to note that Everett himself has admitted to selling when he was younger, and in here he also admits hiring prostitutes during his wilder days.  Everett presents both sides: from a twenty eight year old mother in Liverpool who wants to just giver her daughter a good life to a high-end Mayfair escort who services rich men. There are quite a few poignant segments. I liked his interview of a Jordanian Mulsim in Tel Aviv who is peddling because it's the only way he knows how to make money as he is not authorized to work in Israel. It gives a certain irony - here is this young man in the middle of a religious war, and still sex still sells. Everett travels back to Paris' Bois de Boulougne where his friend named Lychee - a sex worker - was murdered in the line of work. He gathers old friends from there and they have a cocktail party at a backseat of a car (where these workers bring their tricks) Everett tell a story where he had to identify Lychee's body and was surprised she still has a penis. (One of her friends confessed to Everett that Lychee was madly in love with him)  There are some funny bits: Bruno, a gay rentboy, tells Everett that he just came from Los Angeles, where he was in big demand because Americans love uncut penises, and he has one. Everett tries to get to the philosophy of prostitution, too. He presents argument about organized religion shaming the industry, and how in his readings he found out that Jesus was friends with a male prostitute, and saw him before heading to the Last Supper. This is a thought-provoking documentary, and I learned a lot and was entertained thoroughly by it. I cannot wait for the second part.

Temptation (Book Review: Tempting Fate, Jane Green)

Temptation - it ruins lives, doesn't it? That is the theme of Jane Green's latest novel, "Tempting Fate," which id her fifteenth novel. I remember reading most of Ms Green's early output, but for some reason never kept up (although I think they are all in my Kindle)  I don't know why, but I was very surprised to see her do some "mature" work here. Gabby is a happy housewife who has an affair with a younger guy - a one time thing that produces some serious ramifications in her life and marriage. Green tackles all these issues head on - there's a head-strongness in her writing style that puts all the issues smack dab in your face. Gabby is written in the best three dimensional way: she is complicated, human, relateable, infuriating, real. You take turns loving her and wanting to hit her sideways in the head. This makes the book instantly readable, instantly enveloping you. Green throws a lot of wrench in the inevitable HEA to make it still believable. From the first page I was hooked, and felt a pang when I turned the final page.