Saturday, December 30, 2006

French New Wave and Ugetsu

Is it me, or is classic French New Wave cinema about finding innovative way to film losers? Any way, I recently watched two new wave classics, the 400 Blows (1959) by Francois Truffaut's and Breathless (1960) by Jean Luc Godard. Both movies are about delinquency, one at a childhood age and another at an adult age. Both movies depict the characters as living in an amoral world of confusion led by selfish drives. Both movies are about sticking it to the "man" on impulse. They're both good movies worth seeing, though I think age has taken away some of its groundbreaking appeal.

The 400 Blows follows the story of a young boy named Antoine Dionel who is the cinematic stand in for the director. Based on the director's own life, the movie depicts a boy who hates school and has a fractured home life. He shows an aptitude for doing the wrong thing and even his pure attempts at performing good deeds often turn on him. The movie gives a full, humanistic view of this character (well, who's going to make an autobiographical film and make themselves look like a jerk) and a heartfelt sensitivity comes across that is rare. The final shot of the film is classic and makes the movie worth seeing.

Breathless I found lived up to its reputation for greatness in its filmmaking style but also was somewhat bored by it. The story of a petty criminal who kills a policeman and becomes the laziest fugitive ever seemed a little silly. That the criminal would choose this time to start a relationship seems bizarre. But the movie sells these ideas well by depicting the lead character as a jaded fool who thinks he's clever. The camerawork is stunning, lots of shaky hand held camerawork and jumpcuts. It gives the story an immediacy and energy the movie desperately needs. The idea of two soulless searchers fumbling in their search for meaning without pontificating on it is surprisingly moving. As good as it was though, this movie really didn't grab me and I found myself favoring the 1983 remake with Richard Gere.

The 1983 version is a monumental piece of crap which amazes the viewer with how a group of people can be so committed to making a horrible movie. Richard Gere plays his character like a 13 year old, hooked on the music of Jerry Lee Lewis and reading Silver Surfer comic books. Poor ex model Valerie Kapiersky is terribly miscast as...well, she just shouldn't be allowed to act. In fact, I think she felt humiliated and quit acting after this movie came out. When gratuitous nudity is a movie's strong point, you know it can't be good. But, like witnessing a car accident, you end up watching just to see how bad it can get. It's also fun to compare the two movies.

On the non new wave front, I recently watched Tales of Ugetsu (1953). A Japanese film about greed in 16th Century Japan. Two brothers attempt to cash in on selling their pottery just before the invasion of an enemy force. The lengths and costs of their greed leads to disgrace and death (mainly for the women that love them). The first half of the movie is realistic and effective, a completely believable portrayal of greed with all of its negativity and appeal. I really enjoyed it until the second half, which becomes a ghost story.

Movies that switch tone in the middle often lose me. Sometimes, the trick can work such as David Lynch's Muholland Drive (2001). That movie stuck with me as a first class mind trip. But in other movies, I find it annoying., It's like saying, "remember the last hour you spent? Forget all that, cause it doesn't matter anyway." That's how I felt about Ugetsu. The ghost story does find another angle to drive it's point home (Dude, don't be greedy!) but the first half's realistic approach was so engaging I was sad to see it go.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

2006 in review

Well, the year is almost over. In entertainment, it wasn't that big a year for me but the highlights that were there I enjoyed. In music, a lot of old timer (my era) groups released music and toured but not much happened with new artists. Movies were pretty dull this year, I spent a lot of the year watching older films. In television, I've found I'm starting to enjoy Sci-Fi shows a bit more (Battlestar Galactica and the reruns of Firefly) but animated series dominate what I watch now. I hope 2007 is a little better than this year, which was filled with some decent entertainment but not much stood out. Except my picks for the year of course, which are:


Top 5 songs
1. "Life Wasted" by Pearl Jam
Pearl Jam wrote their best song in ages with this frantic rocker. For the first time in over a decade, PJ wrote a song with a hook and this tune stuck in my head all summer long. An inspiring and motivating rock song if there ever was one.
2. "Promiscuous" by Nelly Furtado featuring Timbaland
The "I'm Like A Bird" hippie reinvented herself as a club lovin' single gal on the catchiest song of the past year. It first showed up in phone commercials and then caught on from there. The tune reeks of 80's pop rap with the percussive beat, glossy synth lines and bass eq'ed male vocals. It even had a bit of storytelling with the male / female back and forth vocals of two single people looking for sex on their terms. Furtado's confessional rapping and Timbaland's "playa" attitude made for a lot of fun in 2006. Second best duet of '06: "Like We Never Loved At All" by Country couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Get a hanky for that one.
3. "Woman" by Wolfmother
It's Led Zeppelin! No, it's Black Sabbath!! Wait, it's Deep Purple!!! Actually, it wasn't any of those bands but an Austrailian trio who mimics them. Wolfmother's "Woman" blasted out of stereos like it was 1973 this year with a hard charging guitar riff and howling rock god vocals. If Robert Plant hadn't been ripped off so many times before, he probably would have had an issue. No finesse or art is this one, just balls to the walls rock. Classic rock pastiche runner up: Hinder's Aerosmithian power ballad "Lips Of An Angel".
4. "King of Might Have Been" by Chicago
In high school I was a huge fan of Chicago mainly for their melodramatic ballads. Decades later, the venerable band proves you can never run out of syrup with yet another overblown power ballad. All of the band's hallmark moves are here: pleading vocals, rapid fire bass line changes, a synthesizer orchestra and dramatic horn breaks. It sounds like a formula for disaster, but instead the song proves some things stay great just the way they are. Second runner up for balladeer bombast: Meat Loaf's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now".
5. "Tell Me Baby" by Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Pepper's second single from Stadium Arcadium was their bounciest funk groove in years, a bopping tune laced with a soothing chorus. Just when it seemed like they would become new age adult contemporary, RHCP hit back with their funnest song since the 90's. The next best song for silly fun - "Hips Don't Lie" by Shakira and Wyclef Jean.

Top 5 Cds:
1. Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs - Under The Covers Vol. 1
It seemed like an unlikely candidate for anything memorable when 90's one hit wonder Matthew Sweet ("Girlfriend") teamed up with 80's minor sex symbol Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) to play the power pop songs they loved from the 60's. But the duo's love and considerable taste for the genre shines through on this 15 track disc. They cover Dylan ("It's All Over Now Baby Blue"), Young ("Cinnamon Girl" and "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere"), Love ("Alone Again Or"), the Beatles, the Who...the list goes on. Through it all is tasteful production and strong vocals that pay tribute to the Summer of Love without getting stuck in it.
2. Tom Petty - Highway Companion
A couple of years ago I became a huge fan of Tom Petty after a decade of ignoring him. I was discouraged by 2004's concept album The Last DJ and was discouraged to hear there was a theme to Highway Companion (driving and aging). My fears were put to rest with this disc, a sturdy set of songs with Petty slightly echoing his past hits. The ZZ Topish "Saving Grace", Byrdsy "Flirting With Time" and the...well, Tom Pettyish "Big Weekend" & "Ankle Deep" were strong enough tunes to ensure multiple plays in my car.
3. Pearl Jam - Pearl Jam
They said it couldn't be done...Pearl Jam said that is. After deciding to consciously write the least catchiest songs possible nearly a decade ago, the band did away with their policy and wrote the hookiest hard rock songs they've done since their debut. Eddie Vedder rails against all authority and humans rights violations with the same passion and angst he held during the first Bush's Presidency. "World Wide Suicide" pulls no punches with it's anti war views while the slamming "Big Wave" will have you wondering if you accidentally left your Soundgarden CD in the player.
4. The Strokes - First Impressions of Earth
Technically a 2005 release, The Strokes third album saw them toss away the lo-fi vibe to their previous discs and replace it with punchy production and longer arrangements. "Fear of Sleep" was a personal favorite of mine with it's classic Strokes sound guitars and throbbing bass. The lead single "Juicebox" effectively recalled Franz Ferdinand while "Razorblade" pulled it's melody from Barry Manalow's "Mandy" of all things. If only they handn't chosen the dense, spidery "Heart In A Cage" as the second single bigger things might have come from this album.
5. Def Leppard - Yeah!
It was a tough call for this one. Bob Dylan's Modern Times was a strong disc as well and I already selected a covers album earlier. But I'm basing this list on what I played and Yeah! was the fifth most played CD for me in 2006. It helped that I saw them live this year as well. Focusing on the 70's glam rock that inspired them, Def Lep threw down their hardest rocking performance since Pyromania. The T Rex classic "Twentieth Century Boy" was a big favorite of mine. There are a few missteps, mainly a cover of the Kink's "Waterloo Sunset" with all the whimsy sucked out of it. Covers of Sweet, Bowie and Badfinger all hit hard and strongly bear the Def Leppard stamp. Even a cover of Michael Essex's "Rock On", a song I personally hate, can't stop me from listening to Def Lep.

1. Casino Royale
James Bond returned with an actual storyline and gritty attitude in Casino Royale, the most grounded Bond film since...From Russia With Love (it can be argued that For Your Eyes Only and On Her Majesty's Secret Service get close). New Bond Daniel Craig brings a newfound ruthless aggression to the role of the well known superspy. Movie of the year.
2. Little Miss Sunshine
Family road comedies arrive a couple of times a year, but few have any real heart. Little Miss Sunshine is all about having heart in the face of imminent disaster and is one of the few films of honest emotion I saw this year.
3. Akeelah and the Bee
It seems a bit like an afterschool special, but this heartwarming film about an inner city girl studying like Rocky for a spelling bee is truly inspiring and effective. Lawrence "Morpheus" Fishburne excels as the spellling bee coach and the lead actress whose name I can't remember is entirely believable as an intellectually earnest yet street hardened young girl. A little sappy and predicatble, but emotionally affecting.
4. X-Men 3
It says a lot that this is number 4, because this is not a great movie. It's an OK movie. Comic book violence and more Mutants than you can shake an adamantium claw at mark Brett Ratner's entry in the trilogy.
5. Mission Impossible 3
Tom Crazy-I mean Cruise, released his third Mission Impossible movie that for the first hour or so is the best MI you've ever seen. Big stunts, double crosses and micro technology abound in a big spy game swirl until you get to the end. The ending is so unbelievably sappy and unreal that it drains the credibility established by the first half leaving you entertained but disappointed.

1. Family Guy
Freakin' sweet! Peter Griffin and his nutty family returned from cancellation with a vengence. A comedy that shamelessly slaughters all sacred cows with no compunction or remorse is something to marvel at and Family Guy is that comedy. Even better, the show has caught on with a mass audience to ensure a few more years of yuks from the most tasteless, thoughtless humor around.
2. Star Trek
The classic series got the George Lucas treatment with a remastered picture and new digital special effects. What's better than Star Wars is the fact that no major plot points were harmed in the remaking of these episodes. Now, with new digital effects you can see the Enterprise orbit a planet while Kirk shakes his hands and yells "Khaaannnn!" Wait, that didn't happen until the movies. Well, you get the point.
3. As Time Goes By
Veteran actors Judi Dench and Geoffrey Palmer have a December-December romance in the reruns of this British comedy. A sense of character and true wit engages the viewer in this genial show. Dench and Palmer play a middle age couple who split on bad terms during the Korean War. A show with this much warmth and class is something rare, As Time Goes By is a fun and relaxing show.
4. Gokusen
The Japanese anime series about a high school teacher with a Yakuza background is a blast with it's bizarre tone about honor and compassion. Teacher Yakumi can barely conceal her Underworld bloodlust while teaching teenagers about life and mathematics. Big fun!
5. WWE Raw
Pro Wrestling's number 1 show continues on with reduced expectations. Fewer name wrestlers playing to smaller crowds would be enough to make some shows stop, but WWE Raw flies in the face of public opinion by getting back to basics. A mix of classic wrestling angles, Raw now features long time name wrestlers fighting in between cheesy interviews and big stunts.

Now, 2006 comes to a close. I didn't get the Who or Eric Clapton's CD's, so I can't include them in this review. Still, Christmas is coming soon and more reviews will follow. Until then, have a Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Aerosmith in concert

Last Sunday, I saw Aerosmith live for the first time. It was a terrific show, the band gave a lively performance with great stage effects at the Arco Arena in Sacramento CA. My memory may not be perfect but I believe the set list was:

Toys in the Attic / Walkin' The Dog / Love In An Elevator / Cryin' / What It Takes / Baby Please Don't Go / Stop Messin' Around / Seasons Of Wither / Dream On / Train Kept A Rollin' / Last Child / Sweet Emotion / Draw The Line

Encore: Walk This Way

I became a fan of Aerosmith during their comeback in the late 80's, though I always liked "Sweet Emotion". This was a great concert to go to although the set list was really short for a show they were headlining. Most of this tour has been split as co-headliners with Motley Crue which is why they have been performing a half set. As headliners, it would have been nice to have a fuller set especially since many hits are missing ("Dude Looks Like A Lady", "Janie's Got A Gun", "Living On The Edge" and "Mama Kin" just to name a few). Still, I cut these guys a little slack as they are getting up there in age. Besides, what they did play they performed with gusto.

The opening act was Hinder, that new band with the Aerosmith sounding power ballad called "Lips Of An Angel". Hinder tried hard to rock out but were hampered by mostly undestinguished songwriting. Very little stood out until they played their hit. Still, their energy caught a lot of support from the audience. For me, it pretty much sold me on skipping their CD.

Aerosmith's set began with a personal favorite of mine, "Toys in the Attic". The band blazed through this song as Tyler ran the various ramps of the stage and posed for the video cameras. The second song was a surprise pick, a cover of "Walkin' The Dog" with a great video of drummer Joey Kramer panting in close up. The favorites kept coming as "Love In An Elevator" was played with a great deal of crowd participation, particularly on the "Oh-Yeah!" parts of the verses.

The ballads "Cryin'" and "What it Takes" were played with only a few changes from their previous versions. Tyler mouthed "Your love is sweet f*ckin' misery" during "Cryin'". "What it Takes" was played half a-capella as it is on the "A Little South Of Sanity" live CD. My wife really got into "What it Takes" and sounded great singing it.

A blues cover portion came up with a lively cover of Van Morrison's "Baby Please Don't Go" and a Joe Perry lead vocal on Fleetwood Mac's "Stop Messing Around".

The next set of ballads were particularly stagy. "Seasons Of Wither" featured both fake and digital snow falling during the song and some terrific acoustic guitar from Joe Perry. "Dream On" is not my favorite song, but I got into the dramatic ending which included Tyler turning into a burning man on the video screen.

A barn burning cover of the Yardbirds "Train Kept A Rollin" brought the pace back up. A wonderfully funky "Last Child" followed. "Sweet Emotion" was dragged out to good effect, particularly the 70's styled middle section where Joe Perry stood under a triangular laser light slamming his guitar against a mic stand while throwing glitter in the air. "Draw the Line" started off strong but the band seemed to get lost half way through the song. They pulled it together for the finish as my wife and I left the arena.

I heard the beginning of the encore "Walk This Way" which included a brief bit of the James Bond theme.

This was the last show of Aerosmith's tour. It seemed like they may have shot a video as the camera work and video effects were extrememly professional. Also, Tyler sang to the cameras often and spent a portion of the show singing with his back to the audience. Guitarists Joe Perry and Brad Whitford were both on top of their games. Bassist David Hull did an admirable job of filling in for Cancer striken Tom Hamilton, even including a bit of Led Zep's "Kashmir" into the bass solo. Drummer Joey Kramer was in fine form though he seemed to lose a step with age.

The Arco Arena lived up to its nickname "Echo Arena" but overall the show was a blast.
Just wish it was a longer show.

Sunday, December 17, 2006


My wife and I were browsing through premium cable channels when we came across a Japanese Anime series called Gokusen showing on Encore. We watched an episode since nothing else was on and have gotten hooked on this hilarious series. The gist of the series is that a new, seemingly meek high school teacher takes her first job teaching a class of juvenile delinquents. That sounds boring because its been done many times before, but the hook here is that the teacher is also the head of a Yakuza clan.

That's where the fun comes in, as Teacher / Yakuza leader Ojo juggles her violent, ruthless tendencies with her caring, nurturing intentions. She often loses control of herself while teaching class, switching from cold blooded fighting machine to naive sweet girl...sometimes in the same sentence. Most of the school thinks shes crazy, except one student who suspects something more about his teacher but can't figure it out.

Most of the anime I've seen is entertaining but has extremely complex storylines and hyperviolent action (Robotech and Star Blazers come to mind). Gokusen has violence, but the storylines are usually simple and the violence is often played for comedy making this an unusual show. It's like Robert Deniro in Analyze This, if he was a woman in his mid-twenties teaching a class. This is the funnest, lightest anime show I've seen and I get a real kick out of seeing the almost schitzophrenic behavior of the lead character.

In researching this series, I've found there is a live action version of this show as well. Hopefully, this will air in the US as well so I can compare the two.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Number 58

Generally, there are three types of successful rock artists. There are album artists who specialize in delivering a theme or concept over the span of a set of songs. There are singles artists, musicians who specialize in creating three minutes of magic but can't sustain their brilliance over a set of songs. And there are singles artists who think they're album artists, musicians who create a set of songs with the intention of a gigantic theme but only generate a handful of listenable songs. Number 58 falls into the last category,

Number 58: Lenny Kravitz - Greatest Hits (2000)

To say Lenny Kravitz is interesting is an understatement. Lenny grew up in LA and went to the Beverly Hills 90210 high school. His mother is Roxie Roker, an actress who appeared regularly on The Jeffersons. He originally modeled himself after Prince and in turn learned a multitude of instruments and wrote his own music. Eventually, Kravitz found his own sound by combining arcane influences such as John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and Sly & the Family Stone. In other words, any classic rock artist from the early 70's became an influence for Lenny Kravitz.

Kravitz often seems to have grandiose ideas for his music, attempting to create music that is timeless by taking the best elements out of classic rock for his own. On paper, it sounds great. In practice, Kravitz often falls short of his ideals but does manage to create effective and catchy singles which conquer radio waves across the country. For this reason, the best way to experience Lenny Kravitz is through Greatest Hits (2000).

While Kravitz may not be a dominant artist, his highlights are plentiful. The driving Hendrixian guitar workout "Are You Gonna Go My Way" has become a signature song for him. Kravitz can also throw in a little funk in his rock in a way reminscent of Sly Stone such as on "Always On The Run". The soulful R&B of "It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over" is a great tune in the early 70's R&B style. The John Lennon touches are revealed on tracks like "Stand By My Woman" and "Let Love Rule". Even the critically reviled remake of Guess Who's "American Woman" has an outstanding funky groove to it in Kravitz hands.

Many of Kravitz' albums included a great deal of filler that neither annoy or impress. But Greatest Hits cuts the filler out and leaves the beat moments of a prolific singles artist.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Survivor Series and WWE

A week ago I ordered the Survivor Series pay per view of the WWE and found myself a little mixed about the event. I enjoyed watching it, but nothing about it really blew me away. I think this leads to the heart of the problem for WWE wrestling right now, it's all a bit "been there, done that". One of the things I felt was exciting about wrestling when I first started watching it was the unpredicatbility. Seeing outlandish characters do impossible things to each other and brag about it.

It's not that the WWE isn't trying, in fact they're trying really hard to push our buttons. Recent wrestiling gimmicks include a new team called Cryme Tyme who act like fun loving petty criminals beating up on a Michael Richards type racist ranting comedian. But their attempts are to fall back on what worked in the 80's and 90's. The gimmicks have gotten broader in a more 80's style, such as a rough Irishman complete with shalale and leprechan (O'Malley? I can't remember his name), a worm eating voodoo guy (Boogie Man) and a Marine (John Cena).
At the same time, they're recycling what's left of the 90's with a reunited Hardy Boyz (which is awesome cause they're great together) and a mini size version of DX (Triple HHH and Shawn Michaels).

These moves keep WWE in a holding pattern where it is still entertaining. But it does show what the problem is. Survivor Series was entertaining but nothing really memorable happened. What I'm waiting for is something new and exciting to take place. Hopefully, WWE will find it and exploit it to death. I can't wait!

March Of The Penguins

The other day I finally got around to seeing March Of The Penguins (2005), a documentary about the mating cycle of the Penguins in Antarctica. I had put off seeing it for a long time, mainly because I am not that into documentaries. I do find I watch them more often now, but that is compared to not watching them at all. At any rate, I saw it - the movie that made Penguins the new Dinosaurs (remember that Jurrasic Park fad?). For proof of this, just look at how Happy Feet (2006) is making a killing at the box office.

March Of The Penguins tells a revealing story of how Penguins walk 70 miles to a central mating ground where they procreate and then care for an egg until it hatches. They care for the young penguin for a while until it is time to leave the new breed to become their own pack. Along the way, Penguins have to defend the eggs / younglings (sorry, Star Wars terminology) against freezing cold weather (it's Antarctica-it's known to be a little cold) and dangerous predators (you'll never look at seals and ducks the same way again!). It's a moving story to say the least.

It is beautifully shot with great views of glaciers and some fantastic underwater photography. Some of the images are the type movies now use digital effects for (the Southern lights, the Penguins high speed swimming) which makes the documentary filming that much more impressive. Where the movie is most effective is in humanizing the penguins struggle, framing their behavior by describing the impulses to procreate, to care for each other, provide for the family and act out when unhappy. It also helps to use the voice of God, er, Morgan Freeman that is.

In fact, it is so effective it made me aware of my own life and how it is important to both enjoy life and make the most of the limited time we all have together. Or maybe I feel that way because I'm off work right now. It made me feel like my (much ridiculed) graduating high school quote from REO Speedwagon, "Live Every Moment and Love Every Day". Hmmm...I guess that does sound lame, but that's how I feel!

Saturday, December 02, 2006


Sometimes bad things happen and you just want to kill yourself. Or Not. Or Maybe. Or Maybe after you get someone back really good. So gos Harakiri (1962), a Japanese movie I watched on Tv recently. Harakiri is a terrific movie about a destitute ronin Samurai asking permission to commit ritual suicide in a respectable clan house. The movie is told in a series of flashbacks depicting a stories first told by the representative of the clan and then by the Samurai as he prepares for suicide. It's over two hours long, but the movie is a marvel of pacing and story structure. The movie slowly reveals bits about the different characters through the flashbacks and their actions in the present.

Thematically, Harakiri is about defining the Samurai code of honor. What is respectable and what is not divides on a narrow line. The point of view from the person's station in life ultimately defines it. When the Samurai requests to commit Harakiri, the House officials debate on how to handle this. Should they allow it? Should they give him money to go away? Should they insist on it? The House's response to the request shows a strict traditional point of view based on power and a perception of entitled honor from a general view.

The Samurai embodies a perception of honor from a personal view, where family, compassion and caring take precedent over tradition and rules. The slow burning intensity of the clash between the two brings passion and magnetism to what should be a dry arguement.

The direction is epic but not overblown. The acting is first rate throughout the cast, all players are thoroughly convincing in their roles. Again, the pacing and unpredictability of the plot makes it watchable and suspenseful. A true classic film.