Monday, August 31, 2009

In The Heat Of The Night

Every once in a while I like to poke my head out and see what's happening in music that's new...or at least new to me. This week I'm dedicating to looking at new music either from artists that I haven't heard of before or established artists releasing new stuff. Plus, I get to be a little lazy about posting because I know the topic for a whole week of what I'm gonna write about. A win - win situation.

So, first up is an artist I came across on one of the music samplers that come with PASTE magazine. PASTE has been a great resource for finding great new music in the past, I've gotten into Rilo Kiley, The Bridges, Spoon, Arcade Fire and others through this awesome periodical. While playing a recent sampler, this tune jumped out at me that sounded real old school soul. It was a song by Shemekia Copeland called "Never Going Back To Memphis". Cool jam, reminds me of the sort of thing that shows up on a Quintan Tarantino soundtrack. Whoever plays guitar on this is pretty good too.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The End Of The Innocence

It's a cat! It's a rabbit! it's an owl! It's...I don't know what it really is, I'm going with cat. My Neighbor Totoro.

Little Children rating:

My Neighbor Totoro rating:

Lars And The Real Girl rating:

Time to clean up on some DVD reviews I've had piling up over the past few weeks. Let's knock out the easy ones: The Rocker - boring boring boring skip it, Step Brothers - trash everything except the mini opera at the end Will Farrel lip syncs to while John C Reily inserts the phrase "Boats and hos" at random- finishing with a giant drum solo, and now we can get on to the actual reviews of movies all about the inner child-

Little Children (2006)

Kate Winslet kicks acting ass all over the place in this wryly amusing/condescending take on upper middle class ennui. Winslet's ability to transform is geared towards being wholly American and she pulls it off beautifully as a stay at home mom feeling stifled by her existence. The sense of quiet desperation is almost palpable. She gets into an affair with Nite Owl Patrick Wilson who is a stay at home Dad also feeling stifled. Meanwhile Rorschach Jackie Earle Haley is a recently released pervert towards children who moves back home while the neighborhood, including an over zealous watchdog guy, is disgusted. Haley's is ultra creepy and magnetic in his performance as a pervert who can't be any other way.

Little Children has a voice over done in a sort of anthropological style that adds a smugly amused twist that goes over well. Although the title would seem to involve the safety of little children from horny parents and child molesters, it's really about how adults are little children. Children with the ability to either fight with or give in to their deepest impulses and the consequences that follow. I watched this movie in parts when I had spare time, it was like a good book that couldn't be put down.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

This was the rubber match for Hayao Miyazaki and me, he was 1 and 1 after Ponyo. So My Neighbor Totoro is about a family that moves into an old haunted house next to a forest protected by...I guess a magical cat? Like Ponyo there were small children who's behavior is captured accurately, mainly it was about two sisters and their Dad (who actively encourages their fantasy based worldview). The two sisters encounter spiritual dust bunnies and lobotomized giant cats as they adjust to their new home and fret over their ailing mother in the hospital. The younger sister keeps getting lost either in the forest or out in the country roads of Japan, causing a lot of stress and panic for her older sister. Their parents would worry, except they're usually not around (not even the same town) and just assume the kids are cool with whatever (they actually say something to this effect late in the movie). I dunno, maybe it's an American thing to want to be all up in your kids business 24/7?

Totoro wasn't too bad, unlike Ponyo it reserved its fanciful moments for specific time periods (namely when adult characters weren't around, who were around more often in this one) so it had more context. In Miyazaki movies you earn adulthood by surviving the neglectful parenting you receive, an interesting message. If you make it to 18 without killing yourself, congrats and hopefully there will be some magic beings to protect you in the meantime. The title character Totoro was fun, a silent character that is often sleeping when not giving a shit eating grin. My Neighbor Totoro wasn't great, it wasn't bad though. A pleasant anime fantasy, Miyazaki squeaks by with me to go 2- 1.

Lars And The Real Girl (2007)

So this movie is about this lonely guy who buys a sex doll online and then decides it's his girlfriend. He talks to his doll, takes it to parties and places and basically interacts with the doll like a real person. The shrink tells the small town they live in to go along with this, so they do. Everyone in town treats the doll like a new friend. It's like a bad bar joke come to life. Reminded me a little bit of this guy I knew in high school, he cut out a picture of Traci Lords from the newspaper put it in his wallet and told others that she was his girlfriend. This was when she was in the news a lot that this occurred, so everyone knew who she was.

Did I mention this loopy movie is done without much whimsy? There's some, just not enough to bring any magic to this. Without the crazy attitude needed to make this story work, Lars And The Real Girl becomes sorta bizarre not in the main characters nuttiness but the town's willingness to go along with pretending the plastic girl is real. An entire town asking the sex doll how her day was, what would she like to eat, would she like a drink, go out for a night with the other girls, etc. Having a dramedy tone killed the suspension of disbelief for me, it was acted OK but the characters are painted with a childish tone similar to, well, a Miyazaki movie. Sorry, a sex doll doesn't have the same totemic fun as an enchanted fat kitty with an umbrella.

It wasn't planned, weird how all three movies had to do with a call to innocence to deal with life's problems. Lesson learned from these movies, if you choose that strategy without the assistance of mystical forces expect disaster or insanity in your life. Or maybe you'll look like Will Farrell and John Reilly in the clip below (warning, there is some profanity in the clip). What was it that Don Henley sang, "I'd like to meet your inner child and kick it's little ass. get over it!"

Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Song For You

While playing the Matthew Sweet / Susanna Hoffs album my wife heard one song she liked from it, "A Song For You". She asked me who did the song originally and I had no idea, so I looked on Wikipedia and it looked like it was Leon Russell. But when I played the clip on You Tube, it was a different song. The song that Sweet & Hoffs covered was by Gram Parsons, a 70's country rocker that I've heard of but never listened to outside of The Byrds.

In looking for the Parsons song I found I not only liked the Leon Russell song but already had a version of it on my Ray Charles Cd. So this song has been in heavy rotation on my IPOD lately. I also thought it would be fun to include the Carpenters and Donny Hathaway versions too. This makes "A Song For You" my KRQR double shot for tonight! (or quadruple shot, technically. Also technically only one of these is a rock song. Oh well...)

I Watch The Watchmen

Not exactly the Super Friends


It seemed like the movie that could never be made. Then once it was made, it seemed like the movie that never could be released. And once it was released, it seemed like the movie I would never get around to sitting down and watching. Now I have watched it. And it was good.

I'm talking about Watchmen, the three hour adaptation of what is considered one of the greatest graphic novels (read: fancy comic book) of all time. A dark, nihilistic alternate reality where super heroes came to being in the early 20th century. The super heroes of this alternate reality change historical events (such as the U.S. winning Vietnam or being responsible for assasinating JFK) and as a result have political ramifications usually ignored in comics. They also are flawed ordinary people, their super human abilities magnifying their mistakes and failures in both their personal lives and professions.

I won't bother to detail the story too much because the story has been out there for like a quarter of a century. And I'm watching on DVD so many have seen this film multiple times already. So instead I'll just jump to the pontificating, criticizing and nit picking that I enjoy after watching a movie.

With a story this large and sprawling it can be difficult to keep the focus when adapting to cinema, so wisely they whittled things down to three hours (I imagine a full adaptation would take a day and a half to watch, even with a supposed dvd planned to release later this year that will be longer than the directors cut I just watched). This version of Watchmen sticks with the main story - a brutal superhero named The Comedian has been murdered causing the other superheroes to take stock of their past,present and questionable future as the world edges towards nuclear war. Director Zack Snyder hits a comfortable groove, avoiding any drag that can come from a 3 hour film and visually capturing the comic's panels almost shot for shot. And the mood, that deep depressing mood, is intact as well.

Playing characters that are supposed to be good guys who have dark compulsions to torture, rape and kill can be tough. It's a good thing that the cast is really strong (super strong! heh, heh). I was amazed by Carla Gugino as the brassy, aging, drunken ex-super hero Silk Spectre with a super slutty side. I've seen her in movies before, Gugino was so into character I didn't realize it was her until the end. Jackie Earle Haley nails the near psychosis of Rorshach, the masked trenchcoated vigilante. Malin Ackerman and Patrick Wilson carry the film well as people who feel restrained and colorless without superheroism in their lives. Billy Crudup as the detached bright blue naked dude Dr. Manhattan also excels. It's a good ensemble, none of the actors seem lost on and their performances are on point.

There are so many things this movie does well while condensing the graphic novel that it's hard to nitpick it without guilt. My only real criticism is that while Watchmen captures the spirit and intent of the source material, it doesn't elevate it. Even with the controversial change to the ending I found nothing new or relevatory about it. Although I was impressed by the use of classic rock on the soundtrack, Bob Dylan's "The Times Are a Changin" had renewed poignancy over the opening credits and I downloaded Leonard Cohen's version of "Hallelujah" after hearing it in the film (cross marketing sucker that I am). To be honest, I would have enjoyed this movie more if I had not read the comic because the plot points are the same. Then again, when adapting something as beloved as Watchmen you're damned if you do and damned if you don't when it comes to staying true to the original story.
I enjoyed watching Watchmen, a sturdy adaptation of the revered comic. Much like Dr. Manhattan's construct on the planet Mars, Watchmen is big and shiny device trying to hold on to fragile dreams floating over mass desolation. All the while the clock is ticking.

Monday, August 24, 2009

That 70's Show

and a half

A few years back 90's one hit wonder Matthew Sweet (who I am a huge fan of) and 80's pop ingenue Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) teamed up for an album of 60's songs called Under the Covers Vol.1. It became a modern favorite of mine, the duo's well established love for power pop coalesced into a fun, tuneful and entertaining display.
Now it's the present day and the dynamic duo is back, this time tackling the 70's with Under the Covers Vol. 2. Being a sequel it invites comparison to the first album, where the two showed exquisite taste in song selection (gotta pick the right song dawg!) mixing a few well known songs with a variety of lesser known ones. The mix held attention but gave them space to put their stamp on these songs, elevating above karaoke.
With Under the Covers Vol 2 the strategy has changed somewhat, there is a greater focus on better known songs and a more regimented approach of Sweet on production / background vocal duties while Hoffs more emotive (and commercial) voice out front. Also the 70's is historically known as the point Rock music fragmented into sub genres, to go with that there is a noted shift away from psychedelic power pop. Instead Sweet / Hoffs follow the polyester decade into power pop (natch), country rock, punk rock and prog.

The resulting album is a hit and a miss affair. When it hits, it recaptures the magic of the first disc. Highlights include a charged take on The Rasperries "Go All The Way" with it's amped up guitar riff and McCartneyish chorus. Hoffs and Sweet trade vocals and intertwine with a warm dreaminess fit for AM radio. A real surprise is Derek and the Dominoes "Bell Bottom Blues" with Hoffs on lead vocal. On paper this should suck ass, yet Hoffs plaintive vocal has bite while what sounds like multiple guitars dig into the vibe without taking the legend of Clapton head on. Another surprise on the deluxe edition is a dual lead vocal on Elvis Costello's "What's So Funny 'Bout Peace Love and Understanding" which actually works better for me with a male/female co-lead. It makes the song sound that much more universal. Country rock is a good fit for them as smearing steel guitars heighten the vocals on Gram Parson's "A Case Of You" or Little Feat's "Willin".

But even with these high points there are some serious clunkers, particularly when they venture into prog rock. Prog is about showing off an insane degree of instrumental virtuosity, so it seems like an empty cheat to drag in guitarist Steve Howe to reprise his parts on a cover of Yes' "All Good People". Tommy Shaw / Jack Blade's cover of "Your Move" last year was superior. Like wise a silly cover of Queen's "Killer Queen" sounds like fun in the studio that doesn't translate for a listening audience. Ditto xerox takes on "All The Young Dudes" or "Melissa", both are pleasant but hollow. And trying to imitate the attitude driven talk speak of Tom Petty on "Here Comes My Girl"? Even Petty's idol Bob Dylan couldn't pull that off. Plus a wretched cover of The Ramones "I Wanna Be Sedated" that drains the life out of a punk rock classic. In spots my wife's chief criticism seems accurate that their version of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" applies to Sweet /Hoffs hubris in thinking they could play any musical style they feel like well (though I have to admit to liking their cover of this song, playing up the fragile hurt a bit more).

Thankfully, there are more winning moments than snoozers to keep this boat afloat. Even a note for note copy of the ten minute Television tune "Marquee Moon" might sound bad in theory, yet in practice I like it more than the original. The second half of the main disk lets the group jump into some lesser known songs to develop more personality. And hearing Hoffs push raspiness into her voice for Rod Stewart's "Maggie May" is good stuff and revives her knack for not changing genders in lyrics when handling male driven songs. Even a song from my musical arch enemy James Taylor ("You Can Close Your Eyes") becomes enjoyable when passed through the duo's hands. Last but not least Matthew Sweet + Todd Rundgren song = amazing ("Hello It's Me")

Under the Covers Vol 2. retains much of the fun spirit of it's predecessor even though Sweet and Hoffs periodically jump the shark. Despite its flaws, this is a thoroughly addictive listen for me. If you're in the mood to kick back with big headphones and RC Cola while hanging out in your basement playing Connect Four, Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs are playing your song. (I should note that some of the songs covered come from the deluxe edition which has a second CD)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Go Fish


Hayao Miyazaki, the name generates a huge buzz among fans of Japanese animation and his latest movie Ponyo is getting a big marketing push here in the States. Redubbed with big name Western actors (Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon and Tina Fey to name a few) Disney is distributing this as a must see kids film. Is it must see? Well, here's one opinion.
Going in I had seen only one Miyazaki movie, Howl's Moving Castle. I liked that movie, it was fanciful and interesting with some emotional pull and drama. My family likes Miyazaki's work a lot so I went with them to see it.
The story is about a young boy who finds a fish on the shore. The fish is a magical being born from a mystical mother and father that work to keep the Oceans "in balance". For most of the movie you only see the father, who used to be human and now hates human beings for polluting the waters. He plans some kind of magical means of destroying humanity, but his daughter (the fish the young boy finds) gets lost and is found by the boy. The little daughter fish is named Ponyo by the boy Sosuke and is cared for. Ponyo falls in love with Sosuke and wants to become human. After this, other things ensue but the crux is that Ponyo uses her magic to be like a human girl so she can hang around Sosuke. A major flood of town Sosuke lives at occurs and they go in search of the kid's mother who was last seen going to work. Meanwhile, the father of Ponyo plots to get the daughter back. The magical balance of nature is thrown off and only a specific outcome of Ponyo and Sosuke's relationship can bring balance back.
That's just the first third of Ponyo, this sucker is packed with enough storyline to fill a couple of blogs. But about the movie, remember there were four things I liked about the other Miyazaki movie: Fanciful, interesting, emotional pull and drama. For me, Ponyo only registered on one of these qualifications - fanciful.
This is a sort of fairy tale type of story filled with huge leaps of logic and jarring left turns. While it made this movie difficult to swallow, there was a nice unpredictability and imagination to the film as a whole. At a time when animation is becoming increasingly computer rendered with credence given to a sense of realism and semi-natural physics it was refreshing to see a movie say "I'm gonna throw reality entirely out the window and if I want to show people tidal waves transforming into giant fish that magical fish girls can run on top of to catch up with a speeding car them dammit I'm gonna do it." The animation itself was also well done, a deliberately loose, scribbly and at times water color like style is used lending a sense of childlike innocence.

Too bad the story itself with it's equally child like innocence can't keep up the interest. This movie is made not just from the point of view of a youngling as characters but even the story itself has the rambling, made up off the cuff delivery of an elementary school tale. Every kid has done this,where a trip to say the supermarket becomes epic in size as the white lies get bigger to make the story sound more interesting. "I went to the store, and I met a giraffe! The giraffe said he wants to be my friend but only if I stuff Bubble Yum in Bobby's ear only his ear became a cobra that wanted to eat me and that's why I hit Bobby with a brick only it became a brick house made of strawberries and we all sat down and had strawberry steaks which were great." The storytelling in this movie is like that. The unpredictability becomes a double edged sword, you can't figure out what will happen next because virtually anything could occur just because it suits the whims of the storyteller.

With the focus on wild events and children who actually act a lot like children, I found little to hold on to beyond the impressive visual aesthetic. The lone character to generate any emotion from me was Sosuke's mother Lisa, voiced by Tina Fey. Lisa is possibly the least responsible mother depicted in modern cinema. She drives recklessly through narrow windy mountain roads, doesn't bother to buckle up her kid while doing this at all. While caring for her child she becomes upset that the father works instead of coming home so she pops open a brewski to mellow out. After being told to drive to a safe place while the mountain their house is perched on is flooding, she opts to drive to her home anyway desperately outracing the flood waters close behind her. When Ponyo the fish becomes Ponyo the human girl, Lisa invites Ponyo into her home with a "stranger things have happened" attitude. And, best of all, Lisa decides to abandon her child and Ponyo at their home alone because her workplace "needs her" despite the massive flooding to the town and very mountain they reside. So Lisa is a memorable character for me because everytime she made a horrible decision and was depicted as a well liked responsible person for it I thought "WTF, does Japan not have child services or something!"

There are a lot of rave reviews for this movie online and to be honest, my mother, aunt and cousin all adored this movie so there's something I guess I'm missing. Nonetheless, my personal review of Ponyo is this - it's like being stuck for a few hours viewing the drawings taped to the wall by 4th graders on parent / teacher night in a school your kids don't even attend. Sure you'll see some things that took talent to make and can appreciate that, but it's not your kid so would you want to stare at it for hours? I don't have kids but I feel confident my answer would be no and that's why I found Ponyo to be a pretty but dull exercise.

Clash of the Titans

In the feast or famine world of blog posts, going into this weekend I felt like I had nothing to blog about. Now I have a couple of things to post about which is pretty cool. So I'm going to start with the post I'm most excited about, I was in a Toto mood but wasn't sure what to say that I haven't said already about this great group. I thought about a career overview except I've already covered two of their albums in my Favorite 100 Cds list and I've read an excellent overview of their career already at Popdose so I thought I would focus on a single album. Isolation came to mind because it's an album I always go back to like comfort food though I covered that album before so I decided to go with Hydra from 1979.

When I started buying Toto records a lot of their back catalog was in the cut out bins for the "Nice Price" including Hydra. It had this weird record cover, all blue green and a Steve Lukather (Toto's guitarist) looking guy in silhouette with the Toto sword from the first record cover. What was this record cover trying to say? Rock and roll dungeons and dragons in a sewer? Isn't a hydra one of those snake beasts with multiple heads from the Ocean, why would you wait for one in a sewer? It's not like one of those urban myths where you drop an alligator down a manhole and it grows up to eat people. You don't find a lot of hydras at the pet store.

Anywho, the gatefold cover opened and there were pictures of the band inside like they were scholar / adventurers or something which made it even weirder. So maybe the idea was to set up this concept that they had mythic stories to tell, which would go well with what is Toto's proggiest album. I remember a BAM magazine interview where David Paich (keyboardist, vocalist and main songwriter) said the first record was made to have a commercial sound to prep an audience for Hydra, the album they really wanted to make. So let's take a look at Toto's most epic effort.

In Greek mythology the Hydra was a 9 headed creature that lived in the water and protected an entrance to the Underworld. The creature would grow back two heads for each one that was cut off except for one which was the main head. Hercules defeated the hydra as one of his great tasks. These notes in small font I had to look up because I only had a vague idea of what some of these things were.

What inspired this post was browsing through Toto videos on You Tube (I know, exciting person I am!) and finding all these promo clips for this record which I never saw before. I'm watching the Hydra one for the first time right now (linked in the song title above). Oh wow, the video pretty much is exactly how I pictured what the album cover was about. Toto plays in the famous sewer while a guy (not Steve Lukather, an actor who kinda resembles his haircut) goes to rescue a woman held captive there presumably by the hydra only away? Interesting (reminded me of Monty Python). I never got this song lyrically, I just love the sheer progginess of it. Toto is a band of musicians who can definitely play and they go off here with dizzying solos and breakdowns and handclaps and everything. I'm a fan of prog rock and so I can't put down a chance to hear these world class musicians stretch out. Maybe the different types of musical bits and riffs stuck together that make up this track make it like a hydra, a multiheaded monster. Usually music of this type is done by British bands, it's refreshing to hear a more American take on the genre (I know other bands like Styx or Kansas has done it too though). When I saw Toto perform in 1999 Paich included the piano part of "Hydra" in his solo, the fans totally marked out. Looking back at the video now from the vantage point of about 5 minutes ago, I wonder image wise was it a good idea to play in a rat filled sewer? It invites non fans to say it was where they belonged (you know who you are :).

In mythology, St George defeated and slayed a dragon to save a town from being terrorized by the beast and converted them all to Christianity

From hydras to dragons, Toto has it in for reptilian creatures this time out. This was a track I would skip to often on the record player, I think Jeff Porcaro's drumming is fantastic. The way he goes from a steady cowbell beat to thunderous fills is amazing. The lyric "I can see by the look in your eye /you've never seen the man with nothing to say" has stuck in my mind all these years for some reason. This is another song where I just found the video clip and watched just now, great stuff. If anyone has ever wanted to see singer Bobby Kimball jump off a ladder in slow motion surrounded by smoke, this is what you've been waiting for!

3. 99
In mythology...naw, just kidding they drop the mythology theme from this point forward. Like many, I thought this song was about Agent 99 Barbara Feldon from tv's Get Smart. Paich has said in interviews he was inspired by George Luca's THX-1138.

The lone hit from Hydra and I think it only made Top 30 on Billboard. A disappointing showing considering the prior album had a Top 10 hit with "Hold The Line". Nonetheless, I've heard this song often on adult contemporary radio. It has a sleek, mellow groove and a great keyboard solo by Steve Porcaro. Really classy how this song keeps a dynamic to it with how it builds and falls without ever getting noisy. This song may have the most love for a number this side of Sesame Street. My only complaint is at the end of the track, they repeat this musical pattern over and over getting increasingly quieter until they're hardly playing at all. That part goes on way to long for me. The rest of the track? Pure magic. And I am still thrown that guitarist Steve Lukather sang most of the ballads considering in interviews he doesn't come across as super sensitive or anything.

You didn't think you would really get through a Toto album without a girl's name in a song title did you? David Paich takes lead vocals again (he has like three on this record, I can't think of another Toto album from the classic 1978 - 1990 period where he had this much) to tell Lorraine that it's almost over between them. This one was a track I would skip over sometimes, it had an odd juxtaposition of this quiet classical sounding verse and jaunty 50's sounding chorus. I don't like how those two mesh, even now. Not a favorite of mine.

5. All Us Boys

Another song I used to skip a lot back in the days of vinyl, where I would flip over the record and head straight for "White Sister". This song was frustrating for me because the fast beat and sizzling guitar solos were right up my alley, it just had these dorky lyrics I couldn't get past. Something like "All Us Boys want to drink and kick, carry a stick, we're getting older and so much bolder" I think. Toto tries hard to position themselves as rock and roll bad boys, the types mother's wouldn't want to let near their daughters. Instead they come off as trash talking mathletes ready to live it up by lightly unscrewing salt shaker caps in a restaurant. The next guy to use this salt shaker is gonna get it! I'm a rock and roll rebel!

6. Mama

Oh the 70's, when you called your woman "Mama" as in "Hey foxy mama" or "That mama is a stone cold fox" or any other variation on that phrase like "Loni Anderson is one foxy mama". "Mama" has a nice jazz/R&B feel that allows singer Bobby Kimball to really do his thang. Session playing on all those Steely Dan records really paid off here for these guys. I also will give props to the rhythm section of drummer Jeff Porcaro and bassist David Hungate, whose work here pops and grooves well. As Pearl Jam says, heyfoxymophandlemamathatsme.

Oh the 70's, when you had to disguise your drug songs. At least I take this for a drug song, I never researched it or anything. Just knowing some of the band member's reputation for being in love with a certain white powder along with lyrics like "Do you love me / White Sister / Do you love me when I play your game" or later "When I call your name". Cooocaainnne! A sort of self loathing love fest for the "White Sister"...hmm...sounds like addiction to me. One of my favorite Toto tracks, another fast paced rocker that let's Lukather really fly. When I saw them live this was the set closer, total awesomeness.

One of the nicest of the Toto ballads and one sung by Bobby Kimball no less, I liked that it was just voice with keyboards and about 90 seconds long. Like a lot of secret loves, it feels incomplete. Easy to relate to as a teenager.

And that was Hydra, Toto's second album. It went Gold which was considered a disappointment after their Platinum debut. Their career would continue a downward slide on the third record until Toto IV turned it all around. Back in the day I would play all of the Toto records a lot, this one of course was for that progressive rock Toto mood when I wanted to hear a lot of their solos. Now that some time has passed, I can even enjoy the songs I used to skip a little more than I did then which is nice. Think I'll put on some Hydra while I wash the dishes now. Because that's something all us boys would do now.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Dixie's Big Day Out

Today is the Dixie Dog's tenth birthday. My wife saw to it the Dog got to live in style, she had multiple walks, slept on our bed and best of all got to eat a McDonalds Angus Bacon Cheeseburger! So in tribute to our loveable Dixie dog, here's a Journey song with her name in the title - "Dixie Highway"!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

It's Not Over!!! Nothing Is Over!!!! Nothing!!!!

Stallone paints the town red with the blood of Burmise soldiers in Rambo.

Truer words could not have been spoken when Sylvester Stallone scream slurred the post title towards the end of First Blood in 1982. Because with the next movie, the excellently titled Rambo: First Blood Part 2 the character became a mythical icon. The ultimate symbol of Reagan era military fantasy, the outsider (that makes him cool!) that single handedly kills legions of foreign armies and Russians for the American Way. The icon that went back to Vietnam and won the war on the silver screen that we lost years before in reality. A soldier that can literally hide himself in a wall of mud in seconds flat so he can pop out and slit the throat of Russian soldiers looking for him. The man that inspired many to pump themselves up at the gym so they too could walk around in combat fatigues and a red bandanna. As a symbol of merciless gung ho militarism, Rambo has been a pop culture reference point for the past 25 years. And with Stallone simultaneously reviving his career by putting the bow on his trademark characters, one that is ripe for a new movie.
And so last year saw the release of Rambo. That's all there is to the title believe it or not. It's not Rambo: First Blood Over The Top Rocky III Part 4. As with the start of all Rambo movies, he begins kinda isolated from others and brooding because he's, you know, seen stuff. A group of Christian doctors want to go into Burma to heal the poor and spread Christianity because of the military oppression there. They want to hire Rambo to use his boat to bring them in, which he's reluctant to do because he's seen stuff and can't communicate properly to them what's waiting in Burma. One of the group is a thin blond woman who sensitively talks Rambo to take them in.

Of course this is all stirring the pot for the big payback. The Christian doctors are captured by the dastardly Burmise military who kill, maim, torture and rape anything with a pulse. A group of mercs are brought in to rescue the Americans and need Rambo to bring them to where he dropped the docs off. And of course they diss Rambo the whole boat ride over because, you know, he can't properly communicate with others because he's seen stuff. The mercs find out how big a military force they're taking on and begin to cower and that's naturally when Rambo comes outta nowhere and shish ka bobs a half dozen bad guys with his bow and arrows. They agree to follow Rambo on a rescue mission to the bad guy base and that is where the real fun kicks in.

I won't give away the rest, not that there's much to give away if you've seen a Rambo movie before. I'm a big fan of Rambo movies for their hyper violent insanity. And while most sequels just rehash what was great about a film you've seen before, Stallone actually makes an artistic progression here. In this film, Rambo learns to accept himself and stops feeling ashamed of being a human killing machine. In a sense, so does Stallone.

The cartoonish action of the prior movies had a slightly cheesy edge that made them more mainstream. I mean First Blood had a slight sense of realism but Rambo 2 and 3 hit with comic strip force. The direction was a lot like the Rambo character, it was functional and not pretty to look at. With Rambo, Stallone gets all graphic novelly with his Apocalypse Now looking shots of tore up gun boats, smoky jungle and dark waters. The action is more detailed than any prior Rambo movie, killings in this movie often involved flying body parts and buckets of blood. I'm talking Japanese anime Quintan Tarantino Kill Bill level of blood here. Even children get slayed on screen, in full view of the camera.

Who knew Stallone could be this twisted and artsy this late in his career? Yes, I said artsy-in a blunt force trauma sort of way. Stallone revels in Rambo's amoral nihilistic universe as he protects well intentioned but naive Americans from the horrors of the Third world. Sure it's fantasy, yet Stallone makes a statement here. Is morality based on pure conviction or the comfort of being raised in a sheltered industrialized nation? It was food for thought as I watched Rambo slowly tear out the throat of a man who was preparing to rape the thin blond inside of a shack.

So when I look at this movie critically, I find that Rambo is the best of all the John Rambo films. You get jaw dropping audacity, stylish direction, and grisly gory action with fist pumping heart and a touch of social statement. The only false step is the ending, which seemed ridiculously tacked on although it serves its purpose of bringing the character "full circle".

While many may justifiably argue First Blood as the best Rambo movie, I prefer the mythical take on the character that came later. In that context, Rambo kill's 'em all. And you learn an important lesson: learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.