Monday, July 24, 2006

Sci Fi weekend

This weekend was incredibly hot! I don't mean that in a Paris Hilton slang kind of way either. It as 100+ degrees all day and even the air conditioned mall was warm. With this kind of weather, my wife and I decided to stay in the house a lot where we could sit and be hot as opposed to the melting-point-of-iron kind of hot outside. With not much on tv, I watched two movies I never had any intention of seeing: I Robot and Serenity.

When I was a kid, I was a Sci -Fi loving geek. I grew up on Star Trek and obsessed on Star Wars throughout 1977. I built Devils Tower out of anything I could get my hands on and taught myself that five note keyboard lick from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Moonraker used to be my favorite James Bond movie and I bought issues of Starlog magazine whenever I could.

After about 1980, my interest in Sci-Fi waned though I still had a mild interest. I think it was the point where they started giving names to Star Wars characters that would only appear for five seconds in the background that I started to feel it was just becoming too much.

Star Trek the next generation didn't help. Don't get me wrong, it was a good show but the technobabble about made up technology drove me nuts. Where Kirk would simply beam down, overthrow a native government and blow up an evil computer, the next generation talked everything out. The next generation couldn't solve a problem unless it involved rerouting power through a complex grid of engine diagnostic charts while rewriting computer code to use the deflector dish to create an energy field to offset the radiation of the week. It got so bad, I started to believe their toilets were routed through the warp engines to create a dyson sphere around their crap.

But, I wanted to veg out and the best thing on was I Robot with Will Smith. I watched Hitch earlier in the week and enjoyed it, so I thought I would watch I Robot. It was OK. The movie was about a future where robots are mass produced to be the servants of mankind. What would be the moral implications of creating a race of slaves? At what point does machinery become a life form? Why does everyone in the future drive Audis? These questions and more are hazily explored between Will Smith fighting off CGI robots and wise cracking to anyone who will listen.

The storyline was about the possible threat of computers and robots who are planning to take over the world, but it really was just a run of the mill action movie. Taken on those terms, it wasn't bad. The movie looked expensive and well produced, all of the actors hit their marks and say their lines well. Not bad, but not great.

The other movie I saw was Serenity, a movie that followed a cult tv show called Firefly from Fox. I never watched Firefly when it was on tv. The more critics and Fox tried to convince me to watch it, the more I resisted. But, with the movie on and nothing else to see I finally checked it out.

I've got to admit, I might have missed something by not watching that show. Serenity, a movie about a rag tag group of mercenaries on a tore up ship, had personalilty, action and fun. It was B movie schlock that walked the fine line between fantasy and parody. The characters are memorable, like the captain who talks like he's in an old western, the supersweet engineer, the cocky lunkheaded muscle and the zen pilot with his soldier wife. They cruise through a future that is oppressed by an Empire, in this case the Alliance. When the Serenity crew's doctor takes his sister away from the Alliance, they end up fighting the evil government and evil marauders named Reavers.

The crew faces adversity with cynical, sarcastic asides and determination which gave the show a bit of style. The movie (and I assume the show) gave a lot of time for humor amid the grim surroundings of these outsiders. It reminded me a lot of the type of show or movie I would have liked a lot as a kid, only without the bad aftertaste (I tried to watch an old episode of Thunderbirds recently...I can't believe how badly Supermarionation has aged!). This movie wasn't the greatest thing ever, but it did capture my attention to the point I may check out the series. Some of the story and settings were obviously borrowed from other sources, but the film was fun enough that I didn't care. This was a good popcorn flick, I recommend it.

Live Long and Proper people! Seacrest...out!

Friday, July 21, 2006

Mediocre Movies and Number 80

After spending the past few years watching mainly "classic" films, I became desensitized to a certain level of filmmaking. I came to expect movies that were well written, with sharp dialogue, facinating characters portrayed by talented actors and stylish or insightful direction. But, there's only so many "classic" movies a guy can watch and there are times when I just like to watch something while on autopilot. I saw a few movies this week, some I saw all of and others just little bits-but enough to know what I was seeing-mediocrity at its best. Movies like:

Vanity Fair (2004) - Reese Witherspoon plays a plucky social climber who schemes and manipulates her way to the top through pure blond ambition. I don't think there's been a movie like that since...any other Reese Witherspoon movie. To her credit, Witherspoon infuses her character Becky Sharp with wit, cunning, energy and a touch of desperation. Its actually not a bad performance, though like many Americans playing Brits the accent slips a lot.

The movie itself is pretty much period films by numbers stuff (frilly clothes, big posh buildings and a lot of talk about "proper" society) except for sudden excursions into Indian dress and music. The Indian influence punches up the stuffy British costume drama hoo-hah, but about half way through the film just loses its luster. The first half had me caught up in ol' Becky's struggle for social acceptance, but by the end I wanted to be the first in line to kick her out of the room. Becky Sharp and Vanity Fair overstays their welcome and to call the ending inconclusive is an understatement.

Laws Of Attraction (200?) stars Pierce "the real Bond" Brosnan and Julianne "slumming for a big pay day again" Moore as opposing divorce attorneys in New York. Both actors excel, as Brosnan lays on a laid back, shaggy charm he couldn't do as Bond. Moore takes a one dimentional character and injects as much complex realism into it as the flimsy film would allow. The two stars charisma carries the day as the rom com putters through its paces.

Assault On Precinct 13 (2005 ) stars Ethan Hawke and Lawrence Fishburne acting typecast in a violent shoot em up about cops wanting to kill an incarcerated drug dealer while he's in the Police Station. Hawke acts exactly like he did in Training Day while Fishburne takes out a patent on his I-AmMobius schtick. Gabriel Byrne plays the cunning bad guy in both Assault and Vanity Fair. It's a good thing he doesn't get typecast or I'd be worried. It just seems like he plays the same character from movie to movie. The gritty action is exciting and the movie makes the implausable seem like something you want to believe in (the good guys are in a police station surrounded by crooked cops and no one seems to have a cell phone to call, I don't know, anyone else?).

One thing that can never be described as mediocre is Number 80:

Stevie Wonder - Songs In The Key Of Life (1976)

To say Stevie Wonder is a musical genius is like saying water is wet or the sky is blue-it's a truism. Wonder can write, sing, perform and produce his music without other musicians or songwriters. Songs In The Key Of Life has Stevie Wonder's stylish romanticism and grounded optimism in full form. One of the rare double albums that plays well both thematically and musically, Songs In The Key Of Life is a treat to listen to.

The well known hits on the album are "Sir Duke", "I Wish" and "Another Star". "Sir Duke" is the bigger hit, with its swinging horn parts and Stevie Wonder's estatic vocal about Duke Ellington's music-"You Can Feel It All OOVVERR!" The other hit, the funky "I Wish" throws down a bumpin' groove that moves the listener on a happy, determined journey. "Another Star" rides a calypso disco beat with fiery optimism.

Other songs on the album shine and even had an influence on later music. "Pastime Paradise", with its pensive vocal and stabbing string section, was sampled in the mid 90's into Coolio's "Gangsta's Paradise". "As" with its smooth, gliding melody about an endless love was later copied into Johnny Gill's early 90's hit "Fairweather Friend." While "Isn't She Lovely", a wonderfully warm ode to his child, has been mangled by several American Idol contestants.

Musically, the album darts between a cornocopia of influences ranging from classical, disco, funk , r&b and pop. Lyrically, self contentment and motivation to achieve goals sustains the soul in the face of racism and poverty. "Loves In Need Of Love Today" and "Village Ghetto Land" illustrate this feeling.

My personal favorite is "Knocks Me Off My Feet", a gorgeous ballad that exudes a blissful warmth with a killer hook. It's common to hear a romantic love song, but it's rare to hear a happy one. Melodrama often plays out better, but Wonder is such an excellent songwriter he could make happiness sound engaging and peaceful.

There are certain albums that give a sort of portrait of a performer. The space a double album provides allowed Stevie Wonder to do just that with Songs In The Key Of Life. The music ultimately reveals a person who loves his family, is concerned for his community and aware of societal issues. A person who believes in the healing power of love. After the 70's ended, Stevie Wonder's talent diminished a touch while his living legend reputation encased him in a musical stasis. But there was a time when Stevie Wonder's music had impact and purpose. This was that time.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Wedding Crashers and National Treasure

I recently received a post asking for more movie reviews, so I thought I would write about a few movies I saw recently on cable. I haven't been out to the movies lately, there hasn't been much out to motivate me to spend $20-$30 to see a flick. I mean, I'm not going to blow half a days work wages to go see Little Man (2006). Just seeing the commercials make me want to hurl.

So, on cable I finally saw Wedding Crashers (2005). This buddy comedy starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn as a pair of womanizers who crash weddings to pickup on bridesmaids was a big hit about a year ago. The story itself is fairly ordinary once you get past the "guide to crashing weddings" angle, so what made this movie watchable?

The answer lies in the chemestry and comraderie of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Both actors come into the movie with their established schtick. Vince Vaughn is the fast talker who can unleash a mile of bullshit in less than 30 seconds. Owen Wilson is the wry surfer dude who has a good heart but does mildly bad things. Watching the speed read cheese of Vaughn play off Wilson's slow drawl style is a kick, making them not a great comedy team but the best since...David Spade and Chris Farley! Or Pauly Shore and that left over Baldwin. What I'm saying is that they're genuinely funny.

Like The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005 and very funny), the movie is a bit of a throwback to the raunchy comedies of the early 80's. Lots of sex jokes and gratuitious nudity (though mild considering its R rating). The crux of the movie plot is that the two crash a wedding chasing love and lust amid a Kennedyesque family. A strong supporting cast including an excellent performance by Rachel McAdams as the object of Owen Wilson's obsession keeps the movie from dragging under its predictability.

Another movie I saw the other night was National Treasure (2004), starring Nicolas Cage - The Gene Hackman of Generation X. I mean, is there a movie this guy won't do? He's done like 50 movies since winning the Academy Award for Leaving Las Vegas (1992). And his acting has become so mannered that it can be cut and pasted across several movies and have the same effect-the dreamy moon faces, furrowed brow of concentration, sudden twitchy gestures followed by a burst of rambling dialogue from his mumbly jaw. What happened to the risk taker who ate a cockroach in Once Bitten (1985), had a tooth pulled to feel his character's pain in Birdy (1984) or spoke in a pinched whine throughout Peggy Sue Got Married (1987) just to give some personality to his role? Oh well, everyone's got to get paid somehow so I guess I can let it go. And dude makes a lot more than me.

Anyway, National Treasure is essentially the DaVinci Code except it concentrates on Benjamin Franklin instead of Leonardo DaVinci. The plot is almost a carbon copy of the DaVinci Code book, except there are big action sequences every half hour to keep things moving. The characters are just sketches powered by typecast actors (Diane Kruger as the girlfriend, Sean Bean as the bad guy and Harvey Keitel as a cop). Despite the total lack of plausability, I found this movie entertaining and exciting to watch. If you're looking for mindless entertainment, National Treasure is pretty good stuff. Like Bob Dylan said, "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright".

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Donnie Darko and Number 81

This past weekend I finally watched Donnie Darko (2001), the movie I've been reading about for a year or two as a modern cult classic. Without knowing much of anything about it, I viewed the movie only with the impression that I should like it because Entertainment Weekly told me to. Sometimes, EW recommendations pay off such as when I saw Office Space (1999) after reading about it. I thought Office Space was slyly humorous with a bit of insight into corporate american culture. With Donnie Darko, the story went slightly different.

Donnie Darko tells the story of a troubled rich kid in search of the "truth" (as troubled kids often do in movies). Darko lives his life detached from reality, taking medications and seeing his psychologist while living with a family that would like to hide him away until he gets "better". Darko narrowly avoids death by sleeping in the golf course as his room is crushed by a jet engine. The near death experience motivates Darko to find purpose in life.

From Darko's point of view, the "truth" lies in the hypocracy and inconvenient facts that upper class america wants to ignore. Donnie Darko refuses to conform to conservative america's creed. Is he a troubled and possibly psychotic lunatic or a rebel revealing the dark side of reality that the majority wants to ignore? You make the call.

The movie stacks the deck both ways, with Donnie Darko having visions of time travel and a malicious bunny telling him to do evil deeds. On the other hands, Darko's evil deeds often result in exposing the hidden dark side of "upstanding" citizens. The film wisely underplays these events to keep some semiblance of realism going, a move that proves to be effective. It kept me mildly interested throughout the movie until the big twist ending.

Some things threw me about this movie, such as the decent quality special effects and the hollywood cast. Usually, films of this type are somewhat indie and lacks the polish provided by good financial backing. To see actors such as Jake and Maggie Gyllenhall (sp?), Mary McDonnell, Drew Barrymore, Patrick Swayze and Noah Wyle appear in a dark film was surprising. The movie is well acted, though I wasn't entirely convinced by Jake Gyllenhall in the lead role. Gyllenhall sold me on acting disturbed, but I didn't quite buy the moments where he had to project vulnerability or chaos. His acting just seemed a little mannered to me. Also, I really didn't believe Gyllenhall was a teenager. In one scene, Drew Barrymore is portraying Gyllenhall's teacher and they look the same age.

So why is this movie a cult classic? The best I can tell, it must have to do with the setting. Donnie Darko is like Ferris Bueller, if Ferris Bueller had an axe to grind with the world. It seems a lot of people can get behind that. I just thought it was OK. Otherwise, the themes of time and its effects on identity and memory has been explored in better detail with other movies released about the same time as Darko. Being John Malkovich (1999), Memento (2000) and Mulholland Drive (2001) are better movies about similar subjects. Particularly Mulholland Drive, that movie is a total trip!

One thing I really enjoyed was the music in this movie. 80's classics such as Tears for Fears "Head Over Heels", Duran Duran's "Notorious" and The Church's "Under The Milky Way" get a lot of exposure here. But lets face facts, if Darko was really disturbed in the 80's he would have listened to Number 81:

Metallica - Ride The Lightning (1984)

It's hard to believe now, but there was a time when Metallica wasn't a bunch of careerist snobs. There was a time when Metallica was a band on a mission: To rock as hard as possible and not worry about whether other people liked it or not.
Ride The Lightning captures the band at a time when their songcraft was developing and their riffs hit fast and furious. Heavy riffing, growling vocals and rapid fire drums attack on every song. "Fight Fire With Fire", "Ride The Lightning" and "Creeping Death" pound away with the force and velocity of a jet engine (a subliminal Donnie Darko reference I guess) thanks to the rhythm section of drummer Lars Ulrich, bassist Cliff Burton and guitarist James Hetfield. Hetfield's vocals bark like a crazed drill sargent as he tackles themes like war ("For Whom The Bell Tolls"), Passover ("Creeping Death") and the electric chair ("Ride The Lightning"). Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett blazes through his solos with precision and speed.

"Fade To Black", a song written about the band's equipment being stolen while touring Europe, is the classic on the album. "Black" is often voted among the best Metallica songs ever by their fans. It may have to do with the song structure, it begins with a quiet acoustic intro, picks up speed in the middle and ends with a melodic guitar solos racing to the big finish. Sort of like "Stairway To Heaven", but faster.

Ride The Lightning is by far the darkest Metallica album, many of the songs carry morbid themes. However, the themes are offset by their performance which sounds like a band fighting for their goals and dreams. A little shocking to hear from the band that would later give us half hearted stuff like the Reload (1997) album.

Don't get me wrong, I still like Metallica quite a bit. I finally saw them play live at a Rolling Stones concert last year and had a great time. But Ride The Lightning simply has a sense of commitment and uncompromising attitude that is completely missing from their current work. Listen to anything they recorded after 1996 and then this album to hear the difference. Now that's time travel!

Friday, July 07, 2006

Journey's lead singer and Number 82

In high school, Journey was my favorite rock band. I followed that band like kids in the 60's followed the Beatles, every album, every single release and video was a major event to me. I had posters of them on my bedroom wall, right up there with Asia and REO Speedwagon. I've owned their album catalog four times over, twice on cassette tapes that couldn't take the punishment of repeat plays and twice on vinyl (a friend borrowed my Journey albums and left them in his car. They were more warped than a David Lynch movie by the time I got them back.) Over the years, I've seen Journey in concert about five times. The first two times was in 1986, two great concerts featuring the greatest singer of all time: Steve Perry.

But, all good things must come to an end and after that tour Steve Perry and Journey all but disappeared. Ten years later, Journey returned with Steve Perry for a new album but Perry's health problems prevented a tour. A few years later Perry was kicked out officially for his health but it's more likely due to his desire to sit around his house and live off his money (apparently the only member of Journey who can do that).

With Perry out, auditions followed (which included Geoff Tate of Queensryche) and the band chose Steve Augeri. Augeri bore a striking physical resemblence to Perry and could sing in a style that fit the original songs. While Perry was rumored to be a bit of a prima donna, Augeri was the singer the band wanted-a team player, someone with more of a rock influence and less ego.

When I saw Augeri for the first time, I was skeptical of how well it would go. That skepticism was erased when Augeri nailed "Separate Ways" at the beginning of the show. He wasn't charismatic or have as strong a voice as Perry, but Augeri was energetic and entertaining. Augeri's presence allowed Journey to rock harder and more often, but the lack of soulfulness made them sound stiffer and more generic.

Unfortunately, Steve Augeri had some throat problems recently which has forced him to step down from the lead singer spot (at least temporarily). As a result, the Journey I'm going to see next month will have a different singer: Jeff Scott Soto. Soto has been around for years and is best known to me as the voice of Mark Wahlberg in the movie Rock Star. Rock Star was a crappy movie, but the music was great! Soto can wail and has some of the R&B influence that has been missing from Journey since Perry's departure. Soto's voice does seem a touch lower than the two Steve's, but I think he'll still come off OK. This will add a lot of drama and interest in this upcoming concert, can Soto be the second coming of Perry or will he be Gary Cherone version 2.0. I can't wait to find out.

With that said, Number 82 is:

Blondie - Greatest Hits (2002)

Blondie is a band who I was familiar with before I started to listen to a lot of music. They were often on television and the radio and seemed to have a different sound each time out. Being a kid, I thought they were somehow related to the comic strip "Blondie" though Debbie Harry always seemed more blase'. Their big hits from their hot streak in the late 70's and early 80's is the reason they made this list.

When I think of Blondie, I think of sitting in my room with a bunch of homework listening to the radio. The breezy laid back pop of "The Tide Is High" always made me think of sunny beaches and palm trees. On the other hand, the flashy new wave rock of "Call Me" reminded me of L.A. streets and hookers (being on the American Giggolo soundtrack didn't help). "Atomic" was known for its rap at the end about the Cadillac that keeps eating cars. "Heart of Glass" was pure disco, when it would play on tv I kept waiting for Jon and Ponch to cut loose on the dance floor. My personal favorite is "One Way or Another", a swanky, swinging rock song with a bit of punk thrown in. That song has been used in a thousand commercials and I think a network used it as its theme song for a while (was it ABC?).

Blondie was a pop chameleon in the best sense of the words. They could adapt to almost any musical trend and bring out the glossier elements of their songs to juxtapose against Harry's disaffected vocals. At times, Blondie brought in some of their Punk edge on "X Offender" or "Dreaming". Other times, Blondie could get a little girl groupish on tunes like "(I'm Always Touched By Your) Presence Dear" and "Sunday Girl". No musical style was off limits, as Blondie is often credited with having one of the first major rap hits with "Atomic". New wave, pop, punk, was all there!

Like many groups that become the "it" band, the bubble eventually burst. Blondie did score a decent comeback hit a few years ago called "Maria", a sweeping pop rock tune that brought some luster back to their name. Despite the jaded attitude of Blondie, their music will always remind me of youthful innocence when life was about baseball cards and Battlestar Galactica.


Sunday, July 02, 2006

Kagemusha and odds & ends

One of the things my wife and I like to do is sit down on weekends and watch Akira Kurosawa movies. Kurosawa's films are often sprawling epics about samurais or warlords who struggle to live by codes of honor and pay the price for doing so (or sometimes not doing so) with hundreds or thousands of lives on the line. Kurosawa's films are often amazing to watch to view the size and scope of the settings, memorable characters and a humanistic view of personal motivation. His films are almost like a "how-to guide" on great filmmaking, from the intriguing stories to the realistic acting to the detailed cinematography. The quality of the productions are first rate and carry the thumbprint of his talent throughout the process.

It was with this in mind that we sat down to watch Kagemusha (1980) this weekend. The film was a colorful three hour epic about a warlord who commands his stand in to take his place in the event of his death. When the warlord dies, the stand in (a petty thief) assumes the identity of the warlord to keep other warlords from attacking their area. The film follows the development of the stand in as he struggles to become someone he is not. I won't give away much more of the story except to say this is one tragic film.

Unfortunately, I can't say this is the best Kurosawa film I've ever seen. Multiple lead characters, often a Kurosawa specialty, are a bit more difficult to follow than his other films. Even with subtitles telling me who is who, I had trouble figuring out what was going on and how the characters related to each other. This is also the most talky Kurosawa movie I've ever seen, with conversations bordering on Star Wars-The Phantom Menace length. Nothing is more dull than watching characters endlessly debate each other about what happened in the previous debate (unless it's Inherit The Wind. But back then the filmmakers knew about this thing called story editing to reduce the problem).

Kagemusha did succeed in making me feel for the tragedy of the lead character, a minor criminal who comes to believe in the establishment by portraying its leader. There are some magic moments, such as when the line comes up about how no matter who you pretend to be the shadow of a man will always be true followed by a shot in a latter scene of the stand-in's shadow getting larger behind him. This movie also deserves a little extra credit for rebooting Kurosawa's career and allowing him to film one of his masterpieces, Ran (1985). I give this film a 7 out of 10.

Other odds and ends. I saw part of Catwoman (2005) starring Halle Berry. A ridiculous story so poorly executed its laughable about a meek and mild cosmetics worker becoming Catwoman. Boring CGI, funky costumes (Catwoman looks like an Egyptian Mouseketeer with an S&M bent) and a bizarre green tint to every shot make the old Batman TV show seem like a realistic documentary. What's really funny is seeing Halle Berry give 100% to her performance, seemingly oblivious to how bad the rest of the movie is. What's the old phrase, it's like watching someone polish a vase while the building falls down around her. This is a bad bad movie! I give it -2 out of 10.

Another movie I saw was Henry & June (1989) about the relationship between writers Henry Miller and Anais Nin. It was good, but I couldn't help but notice I was watching yet another movie about a married French woman who has to sleep with many people to feel whole (Belle Du Jour was the same way). What did impress me was Fred Ward as Henry Miller, convincing in a way he usually isn't with every B action movie I've seen him in (Remo Williams? Ever notice there hasn't been a Remo Williams 2 in twenty years?). The guy can act! Who knew?