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05.11.09 My Top Ten RIGHT NOW

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1. MOVIE Star Trek (2009)
Unlike the rest of the world, I didn’t have much expectation going into this J.J. Abrams directed reboot of the classic TV series. So I was pleasantly surprised with the two hours of enjoyable big bangs, high-octane action and trite humor that all felt very apropos to the original source material. Lines are delivered with a wink and a nudge that allows both the diehard fan to reminisce and newbies to laugh at these colloquialisms that have entered our everyday space exploration lexicon. Abrams’ true talent has got to be casting. Pine and Quinto do a nice job as young Kirk and Spock respectively. But it is the smaller side roles, Anton Yelchin as the heavily accented Chekov, Zoe Saldana as the sultry Uhura, and especially British comedy maestro Simon Pegg as Scotty. While none of these roles occupy a great deal of screen time, the perfection of the casting makes them so very memorable. Next time, can we please get a more threatening bad guy than Nero, a dull overly tattooed Eric Bana whose mean growl hardly inspired fear.

2. SHOW 33 Variations
The elegance and intelligence of this show comes directly from the actors elevating the uneven script and honing in on what is a very interesting concept: paralleling the end of Beethoven’s life and his mysterious last compositions, the titular variations, with the end of a musicologist’s life trying to discover the meaning behind those 33 variations. Jane Fonda is radiant and moving throughout, commanding the stage with expert grace that keeps the rest of the cast grounded despite the faulty direction that has them running in and out the wings. Colin Hanks, bearing so much resemblance to his famous father Tom, ably plays the bumbling boyfriend type and Zach Grenier brings a decent amount of charm to Beethoven’s ramblings especially in his 11th hour monologue as he actually composes music in front of the audience accompanied by pianist Diane Walsh, literally playing the music as he imagines it. It’s this excellent bit of stagecraft (even if hijacked from Amadeus) that makes you wish the rest of the show had as much excitement flowing from it.

3. ALBUM II Espers
I happily came to this album because of Marianne Faithful and Rufus Wainwright’s incredible cover of “Children of Stone” which I have been listening to on repeat this whole past week. Given the obsession, I thought I should find the source and was quite happy to find an incredibly talented Philadelphia based psych folk outfit. They are a bit more trippy than their sound-a-likes, The Decemberists and Damien Rice, but just like those bands, they expertly combine male and female vocals over lush glorious scoring. In just seven tracks they create a whole sonic world that you will want to crawl into and live. “Dead Queen” has a funereal dirge quality mixed with the sting of electric guitars. “Dead King” feels like the great track that Air never wrote with the incredible movement between tempos that is as stirring as it is confounding. And then there is “Children of Stone,” and while I’m partial to Ms. Faithful’s, the original certainly doesn’t disappoint, pulling out the sweeter guitar bits that get lost in the cover’s orchestration.

4. The Frying Pan
It’s the same old dive-bar-on-a-boat, but now moved just up the Hudson a bit. Grab a table on the top deck, above the frat masses playing foosball and dancing on the lower decks, and you’ll find yourself peacefully rocking from side to side while catching a few spring sunshiny rays. Pitchers of beer only cost $22 and make the day go by so effortlessly, chatting away with friends, watching the sun slowly move across the sky before beautifully setting behind Jersey. And if you start feeling peckish, the grill serves up the standard burger with Cajun seasoned fries along with a huge assortment of seafood including a $17 platter with shrimp, mussels and other deliciousness from the sea. I cannot think of a better way to spend a splendid Sunday afternoon.

5. SHORT FILM Sadie Benning: Play Pause
Currently installed in the Whitney Museum, this diptych film installation has an incredible soundtrack, filled with the rich textures of city life through intelligent sound design creating an aural landscape that greatly expands the overly simplistic stylized drawings. Moving us through various city scenes, we see a variety of people, strolling down streets, socializing in clubs and in private bedrooms (highly explicit despite the nature of the drawings) all made more captivating by intelligent use of the two panels, sometimes showing duplicate images, other times one illuminating the other further. But the true interest here is the juxtaposition between the full-bodied life of the soundtrack giving a true sense of vivacity in direct contrast to the distinctly stagnant illustrations. Makes sense given the title…

6. FOOD Braai
The interior resembles a mud hut, the ceiling covered in reeds, oil candles surrounded by fresh rose petals line the tables, and a live musician plays the guitar and kalimba in the corner. Clearly atmosphere is primary to the enjoyment of this dining experience. Luckily the food matches if for nothing more than exoticism. Start with the die braai slaai, a rocket salad in a rooibos herb dressing covered with goat cheese, fresh blood oranges and a whole head of roasted garlic nestled on top. The chicken bobotie is a flavorful almost casserole baked in malay curried chutney and served with five incredible dipping sauces that make the meat truly sing. The simple horns and hoof is basically a hearty slab of beef matched with veggies and potatoes. But it was the chicken soup-esque dish served in a large breaded cylinder that has the most flavor to offer. And of course, there’s dessert. Malva pudding is more or less an African flan served with caramelized banana on a bed of granadilla-amarula custard. The koeksisters are delicious little braided pastries doused in ginger honey sauce (and oddly is something I made when I was a kid). And if you’re not feeling particularly adventurous in your final course, there’s a delectable molten chocolate cake that will nicely finish off the meal.

7. DVD Last Chance Harvey (2008)
I’m a bit ashamed to have enjoyed this movie so much, and to have cried through it at that. While the plot is nothing extraordinary and you pretty much got the whole story in the trailer for this film, it is the moving performances from Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson creating such an emotional core that turning away from the screen becomes impossible. Hoffman fumbles with awkward beauty as a father trying to do right by his daughter as she walks down the aisle. Thompson shines as a woman who has happily given up on the prospect of love (as much as we all tell ourselves that every day of life). Together, as they navigate a serendipitous start of a relationship, the film documents a difficult beginning to what will hopefully be the start of something that lasts. It is that central hope that makes you love these flawed characters and wonder what happens after the credits roll. And just try to watch Hoffman’s wedding toast scene and not cry. That’s some seriously great acting.

8. SHORT FILM Le Sens Propre
This French surrealist short is filled with visual trickery that will make your eyes pop. It’s all very simple and artistic, seen clearly from the start as a little girl goes to her window, longingly looking out at the other kids playing. As she closes the window covered in stickers, a raindrop sticker magically animates and becomes a tear falling from her sad eyes. Brick walls become doors, plates crash and break yet stack nicely at the same time, donuts become stockings, and so on. Each visual trick is both astounding but also so perfectly suited to the magical world that has been created. With CGI creating movie monsters and destroying monuments, it’s an absolute joy to see true vision and talent take these same tools and create pure magic and childlike delight.

9. SONG/MUSIC VIDEO “1,2,3,4” by Plain White T’s
This song is ridiculously touching in what you hope and assume is a very honest way. The song is addictively simple, much like the band’s first hit “Hey There Delilah,” and uses that excellent little device of word play with numbers, all just as a way to say “I Love You.” And then there’s the video, a black and white number, presumably not staged, set in Chicago in which families and couples listen to the song being performed on the streets and through intelligent subtitling we learn about how each couple met, how long they’ve been together, how many kids they have, etc. It’s so simple it’s stupid, but if you have a heart, you cannot help but feel a few strings getting pulled here and there. It’s a simple sentiment, simple filmmaking, simple song all conveying the greatest message there is.

10. WEBSITE Etsy
For those of us in NYC, we have great access to hand made crafts and jewelry, even when we don’t want it. Our sidewalks are lined with artists and artisans selling their wares in front of those large, imposing and unfriendly commercial stores. But rather than walk down the street, take a look at this fantastically intelligent website bringing crafters and shoppers together in happy harmony. You can buy and sell here quite easily and it’s the perfect place to find that unique little trinket that ensures the gift is completely singular. But my favorite feature is the ability to search by color. For anyone with a heightened sense of design that needs to find that ideal robin’s egg blue object to perfectly contrast with that accent wall you just daringly painted dark brown, this website makes it a snap. Pick the color from a wide range (and wonderfully scripted flash page) and matches immediately appear, you can spread them out in front of you on the screen, letting you see multiple options at once, allowing you to make the perfect choice between that fanciful print and that perfect lamp. Smart design for a smart concept.

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