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Stevie Wonder Does It Right

Stevie Wonder | David Cronenberg | Tod Williams, Gretchen Mol

Stevie's 'Time': A Grand-Slam Home Run

Stevie Wonder doesn't kid around.

Maybe he was nervous about releasing his first album in a decade, but he shouldn't have been. "A Time 2 Love" lives up to Wonder's high standards, and then some.

I've had the pleasure of listening to "A Time 2 Love" since yesterday afternoon. (It's numbered, watermarked and set to detonate if I try to load in into my Zen Touch MP3 player, so I had to settle for listening to it on a stereo! Remember those?) I'm pretty sure this is the first review of it anywhere.

This was an album that was due in June 2004. Stevie even appeared on "Oprah" and "Good Morning America" to promote it, and then pulled back. Several other release dates have come and gone since.

If "A Time 2 Love" were a book, you couldn't put it down. As it is, it's hard not to keep dipping into the 15 tracks, going back to find the various bits that are so tantalizing.

This is no Kanye West hip-hop clip job. Wonder has written 77 minutes of original, memorable work, full of hits, whether they're straight-out ballads, love songs or funk numbers.

A couple of them we've already been exposed to. The high-charged "So What the Fuss," featuring Prince, has been out for some time. So has the love song, the hook-laden "From the Bottom of My Heart."

Wonder performed the catchy "Can't Imagine Love Without You" at his Apollo show, and the Burt Bacharach-ish "How Will I Know" with his daughter Aisha at his wife Kai Milla's fashion show last week.

Still, it's good to hear all of them, especially the latter, in context.

But there's so much else here. Most artists would hope to have material this good over the course of 10 years.

The album kicks off with an up-tempo song called "If Your Love Can Not Be Moved," which has all the earmarks of a hit single.Kim Burell, who's got a deep-soul gospel voice, provides counterpoint.

"Sweetest Somebody I Know" is a mid-tempo love song with lots of hooks. It's crying out for a remix. Stevie should get Wyclef Jean to invent a rap to go with it.

But it's the third track that cinches the album. "Moon Blue" is a masterpiece of a ballad, on a par with "Ribbon in the Sky" and "Overjoyed." Clocking in at 6:44, this lovely, bluesy number features a beautiful extended jazz-piano solo.

Much of "A Time 2 Love" is about just that, love. But fear not: These songs are far more intricate than you might think. It's a pleasure just to listen to the music of Stevie's mind, to see where he's going or how he got there.

There will be huge fans of "Tell Your Heart I Love You" (which I wish was the fourth and not the ninth track).

"Shelter in the Rain" is the kind of socko single that could be a Grammy Best Song/Best Record nominee if it's pushed by Motown's Sylvia Rhone right out of the gate.

In fact, with 15 tracks, Rhone could easily release simultaneous "singles" with "Shelter" and "If Your Love."

The two tracks with daughter Aisha — "How Will I Know" and "Positivity" — are smashes as well.

And the title song, with a fabulous guest solo from India Arie, closes the album on a note of topicality.

The choices are vast. It will be cool to see what kind of videos come out of "A Time 2 Love." It might be interesting for some grade-A filmmakers to try to depict Wonder's imagination.

In any case, Stevie has delivered an album on a par with all his classics. It was certainly worth the wait. Now let's just hope Motown/Universal can get it out to the fans quickly.

Viggo's Violence: Lord of the Mob

David Cronenberg makes creepy movies, we all know that. I'm still having nightmares from "Dead Ringers."

His new one, "A History of Violence," has no bugs or other creatures. But it's incredibly violent — physically, mentally and sexually. Cronenberg has made a fascinating, captivating film that is a nod to the films noir of the 1950s.

Everything about it — lighting, cinematography, set design, sound — accomplishes a tone that is unique. The score, by Howard Shore, is exceptional and deserving of an Oscar nomination. I can't wait to get the CD. Shore evokes the late Elmer Bernstein's best work from the '50s and '60s.

But "History" hinges on its two main actors, Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello, and they turn in wonderful, gritty performances.

Mortensen finally gets away from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and the awful "Hidalgo" to do his best work since Tony Goldwyn's "A Walk On the Moon."

At times, in fact, Mortensen seems to be inspired by Richard Widmark in movies like "Kiss of Death," "Panic in the Streets" and "Pickup on South Street." (I wish the Academy would finally bestow Widmark with an honorary Oscar.)

Bello really turns into a leading lady in "History," capitalizing on her work in "Auto Focus" and "The Cooler."

Unfortunately, Cronenberg's good work gets muddled with a Mafia subplot and two scenery-chewing turns by the usually more sensible Ed Harris and William Hurt.

Hurt, especially, jumps overboard. It doesn't help that he also looks more like his paternal character from "The Village" than a menacing Jersey mobster.

Still, "A History of Violence" has a lot going for it — and don't be surprised if Mortensen makes a lot of short lists during awards season.

Director Turns Aviator

I disapprove of this completely, but director Tod Williams ("The Door in the Floor," "The Adventures of Sebastian Cole") is flying himself across the country beginning today.

Williams will make a stop in Michigan, then head to Texas if he can, before heading to Los Angeles. That's where he and his wife, actress Gretchen Mol, will make their home after living their lives in New York.

In fact, I disapprove of that too, but they didn't ask me. Williams is flying a four-seater, by the way.

Gretchen, who has a dog, will use more conventional means of travel. By the way, the beautiful blonde, prematurely touted on the cover of Vanity Fair as a hot ingénue several years ago, finally has a great movie coming out.

She stars in Mary Harron's "The Notorious Bettie Page," about the famed '50s pin-up girl. Both director and star do an incredible job of recreating the whole feel of the era and what was actually a pretty tame pre-porno.

Last night at the Museum of Modern Art, "Bettie Page" was screened for the cognoscenti, including indie all-star directors Todd Haynes ("Far From Heaven"), Todd Solondz ("Happiness") and Kimberly Peirce ("Boys Don't Cry").

Douglas McGrath ("Emma," "Nicholas Nickleby") brought his talented filmmaker wife Jane Read Martin and Toby Jones, the star of his Truman Capote movie, "Have You Heard?" which will be released next fall. (This is not to be confused with the imminent "Capote," starring Philip Seymour Hoffman.)

Now all PictureHouse (aka Fine Line Features) has to do is give "Bettie Page" an Oscar qualifying week in December before its winter release. Mol is a contender, as is Harron, and both of them should pick up critics awards in various cities if nothing else. (Watch for the usual smart turn by Jared Harris, too.)

Maybe Vanity Fair will do the right thing and give the totally charming Gretchen the cover again, now that she deserves it!

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