Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance

Pere Ubu - The Modern Dance (5/5)

The first thing you hear on The Modern Dance is high pitched feedback approximating something like a dog whistle. Automatically you know something is afoot. This single line of feedback rides itself out for twenty seconds while a couple of notes are plucked on a guitar in the background, and then it is overtaken by some 1950's-Rock n' Roll-sock hop chords that suddenly break into a whole song. The first song off The Modern Dance is called "Non-Alignment Pact," and the first time you hear it I swear you'll feel the top layer of your brain peel away.

Okay, enough hyperbole.

Punk music is probably the most difficult thing in the world to define. If you ask anyone what it was you'll get answers across the musical spectrum. Everything from the Ramones to Brian Eno are considered punk by some people. The easy way out of this little problem to say "punk music was underground rock of the mid to late 1970's." This just begs the question, what the fuck was it that made it "punk"? Others use the good old technique of hindsight, and throw punk into one mason jar, new wave into another, and continue to amputate no-wave, avant garde, glam rock, proto-punk, etc. Despite being obnoxious it also isn't totally accurate. After all, the Talking Heads were playing CBGB right along with the Ramones, so it's not like the punk audience showed up for the Ramones' set then left to make room for the new wavers. It was all one big mixed up mess. The closest thing to an all encompassing definition of punk is "reactionary music." Not terribly eloquent.

If you ask me the closest definition of punk is the first half-minute of "Non-Alignment Pact." The first half of punk is represented in the feedback and sparse guitar notes that represent the avant garde aspect of punk: the Brian Enos, Talking Heads, Televisions, DNAs, Wires, and the like. These are the people that were interested in tearing down rock and roll structures. They wanted to see where rock music could go.

The other half of punk is represented in the classic rock 'n roll chords that carry the rest of the song. These are the bands that were sick and tired of power ballads and just wanted to bang out a taunt burst of energy in under three minutes. These are your Ramones, Sex Pistols, The Damneds, The Germs, etc. You know, the ones who have eclipsed the punk legacy. These bands were looking to rediscover rock music's primitive roots.

Of course, many of these bands have one hand in each tradition. Adam and the Ants, The Talking Heads, and Bow Wow Wow all dabbled in African beats in order to find rock music's deep primitivism. Like the second half of punk they were looking to rediscover the primitive roots of rock. However, all three bands used this tradition to forge something forward thinking and completely new. Similarly, Pablo Picasso used African art in his paintings in order to make art that was leaps and bounds ahead of his predecessors. Critics called his work "primitivism" (and not always in a nice way), but in fact it wasn't the complexity of his brush stroke that made his work great, instead it was the complexity of his imagination. Punk rockers followed a similar ideal, and prized imagination over complex solos and seeing how many tracks you can use on a single song.

If you really think about it, even the Ramones were avant garde in a way. After years of rock musicians seeing how long they can draw out a guitar solo here are a few fifties obsessed kids looking to go the complete opposite direction. They want to unearth what made rock music great in the first place, and they didn't do that by merely repackaging old sounds (plenty of musicians these days could learn from them in that regard), but rather by realizing that because the times have changed to recapture the feeling of old rock and roll they had to change the sound of old rock and roll. If that isn't forward thinking I don't know what is. While the Ramones were more primitivism and less avant garde, and someone like The Talking Heads were probably more avant garde and less primitivism, both had a similar view on music. They needed to look towards the past in order to make a successful leap towards the future. Inevitably I'm brought to the image of Janus-- a single head with two faces looking in the opposite directions at the same time.

All right, back to Pere Ubu.

Pere Ubu are a bunch of boys from my hometown of Cleveland. A lot of people would be surprised that Cleveland had a vibrant punk scene in the late seventies. In the States, Cleveland was second only to New York as being the most important city for punk's birth (not counting Detroit's proto-punk rockers, of course). Some other great punkers from Cleveland: Electric Eels, Dead Boys, and Rocket from the Tombs.

The point of my digression is that Pere Ubu is a perfect incarnation of this primitive rock and roll meets avant garde artistry. The front cover tells a lot about what's on the inside. It's a factory worker doing a pirouette in ballet shoes and with the smoke spewing factories of Cleveland serving as background. It's incredibly surreal, and it's also a perfect image to convey the high brow meets low brow attitude of Pere Ubu. The name itself is taken in part from a 19th century French play that I'm sure no more than ten people in the United States has read (I'm not one of them).

The aforementioned "Non-Alignment Pact" is the most conventional song off the album, but even when they get really far out there you can find elements that tie them down to their primitivist traditions. "Laughing," for example, starts out with what sounds like a bagpipe dying for a couple minutes, but breaks into full out rock attitude. The song is hardly conventional, but Dave Thomas, the lead singer, throw in some old rock and blues idioms with lines like, "My baby said if the Devil comes, shoot him with a gun."

"Street Waves" continues the "Non-Alignment Pact's" repackaging of old rock and roll sounds complete with a fast and tight guitar solo. This is followed by my favorite song off the album, "Chinese Radiation." Easily one of my favorite songs of all time, it sounds like Pere Ubu is taking a cue from The Who's mini-epics, but this time it's even more compact and much more fucked up. It starts out with some clean guitar playing along with Dave Thomas's vocals, then continues into the second movement where the song picks up speed accompanied by the sound of crowds cheering in the background, until it finally eases off into a refrain of the first verse but this time with a piano backing Dave Thomas instead of the guitar. Looking back at my description I realize it's completely inadequate, but once you listen to the song a few times I guarantee you'll be hooked.

More often than not the most bizarre element of Pere Ubu's songs are Dave Tomas's vocals. He sounds as if he's flexing every muscle to just to push out the lyrics (or the yelps, grunts, or whatever the hell noise he decides to make), and when he does they sound contorted and crippled.

The songs generally de-evolve as the album progresses, and the most starkly apocalyptic moments come in the six-minutes of "Sentimental Journey." Some people would be hard pressed to call this a song, just like people had a difficult time calling Naked Lunch a novel. It's really just a collage of found sounds and instruments of all sorts shrieking. Dave Thomas makes odd noises or says odd things, and if it isn't spontaneous then it's a pretty good approximation. It sounds like they broke a lot of stuff making this song. It has even less structure than stuff found on The Velvet Underground's debut. This is the most avant garde moment on the entire album.

The final song, however, reclaims the primitive side of rock. The closing number, "Humor Me," is a faux-reggae number that has Dave Thomas yelling "It's just a joke mon" in a fake patois. This is a perfect reflection of punk music's hidden fetish with native born music. Perhaps punk was so interested in ska and reggae because it had a kind of home grown legitimacy that their post-modern society had striped from then. Then again, that's an idea for another time. "Humor Me" sports one of the best solos of all time. It's not the most difficult (even compared to the others on this album), but it certainly has the most emotion. For such a strange thirty-six minute journey that single solo was exactly what was needed to release all of the pent up anxiety the album builds.

The fact that Pere Ubu isn't considered one of rock music's greats is a Milosevic sized tragedy. I don't even think they've been inducted into Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Yeah, I know, they're not exactly Lovin' Spoonful as far as non-offensive radio hits, but where's the hometown love? In my opinion they are right next to The Clash as far as being the greatest punk band from the seventies. The inequity that Pere Ubu has not catapulted above The Damned, Joy Division, Buzzcocks, Patti Smith, (all great bands) and the rest of the punk pack in terms of popularity is evidence enough that God does not exist. Of course, if you listen to Pere Ubu and haven't at least questioned God's existence in an existentialist query, then you haven't listened to Pere Ubu.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (4/5)

Once you realize this movie isn't a porno, it's actually pretty damn good. Yeah, I was disappointed at first, but instead of hunting down the red light district I actually decided to stay. Hell, porn is accessible 24/7, but a movie this funny only comes around once in a while.

The plot revolves around Harry Lockhart played by Robert Downey Jr., a petty thief turned aspiring actor who soon finds himself in the midst of an old fashioned film noir plot. Val Kilmer plays Gay Perry, a private detective who is hired to show Harry the ropes for his potential new role. When someone from Harry's past shows...actually, the plot is really just a MacGuffin for the two actors to spout off clever lines at one another, and the movie itself seems keenly aware of this. In fact, Robert Downey's character narrates the film complete with fourth wall shattering comments (such as referencing the audiences in Times Square). His narration could have come off as annoying, but thanks to the strong script and funny delivery it works perfectly.

The entire film is really just an excuse for these two actors to play off of each other, and they do a fantastic job. Val Kilmer and Robert Downey Jr. can be two of the most frustrating actors. Sometimes they can seem so self-conscious that it's painful, and other times they can turn in a role that singlehandedly makes the movie (Val Kilmer in Tombstone for example). Here they're at the top of their game. They play off of each other perfectly. For example, when Harry asks Gay Perry if he's still gay, Perry respond, "No, knee-deep in pussy. I just love the name so much I just can't get rid of it." This is the kind of sardonic, smart-ass humor you'll find in the film.

It's so difficult these days to find a good comedy that this movie felt refreshing. It feels like it has been over a decade since I've actually laughed out loud in a movie theatre. Most comedies are ruled by the Will Ferrell rule of comedy: if you yell it's automatically funnier. It's nice to know that someone out there thinks that a clever script can be funny too.

The qualities of this film don't stop at the humor. There's also some great send-up of film noir. For a noir fan like myself, this was merely icing on the cake. Not only does the film pay tribute to old fashion noir, but takes an opportunity to subvert it whenever it gets the chance. Film noir cliches are raised so they can be turned on their head.

If this movie hasn't already been driven out of the theatres because it doesn't have a bankable star, then go see this film on the big screen. It's worth seeing a comedy with actual laughs with an audience.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Blood on the Wall - Awsomer

Blood on the Wall - Awsomer (4.5/5)

Blood on the Wall is a trio that plays like The Pixies, Sonic Youth, The Minutemen, and a touch of My Bloody Valentine. Basically, they're all of your favorite alternative bands from the eighties and early nineties all mixed up into one complete, but surprisingly unique, package. Awsomer, which is their second album (get it?), tears through fourteen songs in little over a half-hour. There's not an ounce of fat on this set. It's kind of like that guy that shows up to your party with a purpose. He makes a b-line straight to the refrigerator, downs your best beer, takes a few shots, trashes some furniture, and is gone. You'll never see him again.

I'm a sucker for bands with two singers, and maybe that's why I've fallen so hard for this album. Courtney Shanks has a rhaspy voice in the vein of Kim Gordon that'll make you think of black lights and musty smelling smoke. Ben Shanks, on the other hand, has a perfect mania in his voice, and makes the songs sound as if they could disintegrate into cacophony any second. I imagine some wild eyed berserker with veins popping out of his face.

There's at least one song under a minute, and at least five others that are under two. It's enough to give you wiplash. These terse little snippets are addictive, and like your favorite crack dealer you'll be coming back again and again. I think the real secret to writing a short album is make it so addictive you can't help but listen to it twice in a row.

There are also a few "pretty" songs. "I'd Like to Take You Out Tonight" is the longest song at three minutes and thirty-seven seconds. It recalls Jesus and Mary Chain, and is a perfect little eye in the storm. The closer naturally slows things down as well, and even features a -gasp- piano.

Blood on the Wall are smart enough not to beat you until you're numb, and even some of the harder songs have a more deliberate marching tempo. My current favorite song of the album is "Mary Susan." It features a perfect sing-along chorus backed by a great turning bass line. I've already decided this will be the perfect drinking song for when I become an alcoholic.

I'd write some more, but I've already held you up too long when you should really be buying this album.

Saturday, November 19, 2005


Oldboy (3.5/5)

Oldboy is a film of revenge, secrets, and twists that amount to a textbook perfection of modern day Greek Tragedy. I've never really liked Greek Tragedy. I've read both Antigone by Sophocles and Agamemnon by Aeschylus and I came up with the exact same feeling towards those works as I did towards this one: I just didn't care about any of the characters. I recognize that there are some wonderful things about those plays (and, plenty of wonderful things in Oldboy), but there was no point of entry for me - no character to latch onto.

As the film opens up Dae-Su has been picked up by the police in a drunken stupor. His friend bails him out, but before he is taken home to his wife and daughter Dae-Su is abducted. He spends the next fifteen years trapped in some kind of hotel room where he is fed fried dumplings through a slit in the door, and every now and then they pump sleeping gas into the room so they can cut his hair. His only connection to the world is through television. From the television he finds out that his wife has been killed and he has been framed. He begins training to take revenge and even forms a plan of escape.

Mysteriously, before he can execute his plans he is let go. Eventually he meets up with a younger female sushi chef and the two of them try and solve the riddle of his incarceration. I won't spoil the film with more detail for those who want to see it. I guarantee there's a lot more to the story.

One of the great things about reading something as old as Greek Tragedy is the window it gives you to a whole other civilization. This is the same kind of excitement one gets from watching a foreign film. I will admit that the ending of this film would never be included in an American movie, and there are some odd scenes involving sex or sexual tension that I didn't know whether to laugh or cringe. It kind of makes you wonder what the hell is going on in the mind of the average Korean male. However, there are also some great surreal moments that probably wouldn't be found in an American revenge film. They're not a major part of the movie, but for me they were the best parts. One word: ants.

I heard somewhere that the director is actually a philosophy major. You can definitely tell from the film. There are certain profundities Oldboy forced me to face. Do Koreans really not know what the Count of Monte Cristo is? Does every rich business man have a short body guard that can kick ass? When a Korea says I'll be your dog, do they really mean it literally? Why do people go to internet cafes anyways? Questions like this will challenge the audience and make them think about their own life. (And yes, "profundities" is a word).

As an audience we learn very little about Dae-Su, and personally I don't think the film itself was terribly interested. There were plot points that were contrived in order to fulfill the direction of the story, but I didn't feel like they were overly forced. The film has style to spare, and that's probably its biggest strength.

As you can tell, I had a real mixed reaction to this film. I didn't know whether to give it a 3 (bad review) or a 3.5 (good review). I opted for the latter. Even though this film wasn't my cup of chai, it wasn't worthless and I wouldn't want to prevent anyone from seeing it. If you're really into Korean cinema I'm sure you'll enjoy it, and anyone who's into Greek Tragedy, or even Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, will probably like it. For me it came down to this: if you're more interested in the philosophy than the story and characters, why the hell didn't you just write an essay?

Saturday, November 12, 2005

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan

No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (4.5/5)

"All my songs are protest songs."
-Bob Dylan

"I've never written a political song. Songs can't save the world."
-Bob Dylan

Throughout Martin Scorsese's two-hundred minute documentary we get to see Bob Dylan squirm under a barage of journalist questions. Several times he just asks the questions right back at them, and at one point starts snapping pictures of the photographers themselves. Dylan is portrayed as a chameleon, refusing to be a spokesman for the left or put on a pedestal by the folk movement. The closer Scorsese gets to his subject the blurrier he becomes.

The story of Dylan is framed nicely within the turbulent times his music came about. When pictures of Dylan's sleepy Midwest town is flashed across the screen it's apparent that the straight laced conformity was indicative of the nation as a whole.

No sooner are we are introduced to the restless kid who enrolled in college but never went to any classes, then we see him skirt to New York where he is rumoured to have followed in the footsteps of the old bluesmen, and sells his soul to the devil. Shortly after, his mediocre playing is transformed into a confident musician.

During the times Dylan is in New York you can almost feel the pressure that was building in America. This is also the time where he probably gained a political consciousness that he would later accept or deny depending on how he felt, or maybe on who was asking.

The majority of the concert footage contains booing and heckling from the crowd. I had always heard about the controversy concerning Dylan "plugging in," but it is something else to actually witness it.

This documentary has a long running time, but it never dragged. I was constanty intrigued, and always engaged. No Direction Home is richly layered and deals with a lot more than just Bob Dylan -- I'm sure I don't understand half of it. Scorsese show us a scene of Andy Warhol and Dylan right before he cuts to some British fans deriding the new Dylan music as "pop." As is the case with any Scorsese movie, it is about a lot more than what's up on the screen. In some way No Direction Home is about the changing art of the sixties. It was this decade that modernism really started giving way to the post-modern movement.

The relation between Dylan and his music also intrigued me. The Beats and many of these folk musicians viewed art as a truthful unveiling. Much of this film will have you wondering if Dylan's music concealed as much as it revealed. The idea of an artistic Truth is chipped away at, and instead Dylan lets little truths slip out of his art. There is an act that's going on whenever Dylan writes a song, and especially when he performs a song. At times it is almost as if he is creating a personality out of bits of images and sounds he finds in the world, and then puts them together to create something fresh.

The film manages to deal with multiple themes without losing sight of its subject. In fact, it is precisely because the film deals with so much that it didn't lose my interest despite its length. Scorsese has shown us one of America's great artist, and in the process proves that he also belongs in that category.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Hidden Fortress

The Hidden Fortress (5/5)

Of all the directing masters Akira Kurosawa is arguably the greatest. No matter how much praise and hyperbole is shoveled onto his films they always surprise me by how good they are. Not good in a, "this was phenomenal for the 1950's," but good as in, "this is better than just about anything we're seeing today." While watching this movie I was trying to think of an American director who even comes close, but no one quite matches Kurosawa. If Akira Kurosawa and Stanley Kubrick had a street fight in Heaven I gurantee you Kurosawa would kick Kubrick in the nuts and decapitate him inside of a minute.

This film is often described as the impetus for Star Wars. After seeing the prequel trilogy I half expected The Hidden Fortress to be an exact blueprint for Episode IV, but they're really not that similar. It turns out that George Lucas was talented back in the day. If you're looking for simularities you'll find them, but if Lucas himself hadn't mentioned how much this film influenced him I doubt anyone would be drawing parallels. For example, the two peasant characters, Tahei and Matakishi, are supposed to be the inpirations for R2-D2 and C-3PO, but they're not similar in the least. Tahei and Matakishi are slow, bumbling, greedy, and selfish. They're a far cry from Lucas' creations. R2-D2 is the butch in the relationship while C-3PO is his more feminine partner. (I have to give Lucas credit for having the guts to put a gay robot couple in a film way back in the 70's, and it's even more amazing because no one has had the guts to do it a second time. Perhaps one day gay robots will get the screen time they deserve.)

The story involves a princess and her general who are trapped behind enemy lines and must make it back to their own land. Of all the Kurosawa films I've seen this is the most commercial, and should satisfy fans of old action and adventure. Of particular interest is Toshiro Mifune who is a Kurosawa regular. He plays General Rokurota - an all around badass. When his party gets stopped by soldiers trying to hunt them down he quickly kills a couple of them, and then grabs a horse to go hunt down two trying to escape, all the while letting out a warrior's cry. This action sequence ends in a duel between Rokurota and an opposing general he has a competitive but friendly relationship with. The duel is one of the greatest fight scenes in cinema, and not just because of the fine choreography (although that too), but because of how interesting these two characters are. They respect each other, but if they met on a battlefield then duty would prevail.

This is much more of an action adventure film than something like Roshomon, but Kurosawa still manages to throw in a lot of themes. The princess has a slight epiphony while walking amont the peasants, and decides to save a girl before she becomes a sex slave; Tahei and Matakishi are both morally bankrupt but they still seem to serve a purpose in society; and General Rokurota and his rival both seem to say something about the merits and limits of honor. These themes are great and add some depth, but are subservient to sheer adventure of the film, which is how it should be.

The last film I saw that really understood how much fun a swashbuckling action film can be was Serenity, and before that was probably Pirates of the Carribean. Both are great films but can't quite live up to The Hidden Fortress. But if either of them want to challenge Kurosawa I'm sure he's got some fight left in him after he put Kubrick in his place.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Nirvana - Sliver: The Best of the Box

Nirvana - Sliver: The Best of the Box (3/5)

Well it's finally here, and there's not a single song on it that hasn't been released in one way or another somewhere else. Sure, there are three song versions that have never been available before, or at least to non bootleggers, but is that enough to make someone drop fifteen bucks? Here's what you hardcore fans are getting:

Come As You Are (boom box version). This is perhaps the single most unnecessary item on the entire CD. I didn't even like the boom box version of Smells Like Teen Spirit, why the hell would I want a shitty version of Come As You Are? Yes, yes, I get it, "Nirvana was once just another garage rock band just like yours." That's all fine and good, but give me songs that show why they kick the shit out of my band.

Spank Thru (1985 fecal matter demo). Cobain's stoner delivery is hilarious. Sure, it's just a novelty song compared to the other versions out on the internet, and the one on Wishkah, but it's still fun to hear an eighteen-year-old Cobain mess around. This is rumoured to be the first song Noveselic heard Cobain perform before he decided to start a band with him.

Sappy. This is the real gem on the album. This is even better than the No Alternative version. It sounds more stripped down, and the guitars have that jangly sound instead of pushing a wall of sound at the listener. I loved the original version, and even "borrowed" the No Alternative CD from a friend just because of that song (don't worry I gave it back). This version just has more atmoshperics, and you can really get into Cobain's vocals.

Every problem I have with the rest of the album I had with the box set, but this time it seems more prevalent because I already have the box set. Nirvana fans want new and hard to get songs, not different versions of old classics. We already have the classics, and do we really need two versions of Rape Me? The disc tries too hard to equally represent every Nirvana era by album. They should just fess up to the fact that the most interesting stuff comes from their Bleach days. After Bleach almost all of the great songs went onto their CDs. I won't go over what I would have put on the disc because it's not nearly as atrocious as the self titled disaster (but just in case you're interested I would have included: White Lace and Strange, Token Eastern Song, Even in His Youth, D-7, Verse Chorus Verse, and I Hate Myself and I Want to Die).

Just in case anyone's still reading after that shameless turn of events, I also have some good things to say about the album. They do manage to pick the best of the best (Ain't it a Shame, Clean Up Before She Comes, Do Re Mi, Opinion, Old Age, Floyd the Barber (live)). The alternate versions of classics are more interesting without an intimidating three hours of music to wade through. Of course, you could always solve that problem by putting these songs on a mixed tape of your own. You know, kind of like a...oh, I don't know, "best of the box." Francis Bean did a good job with the cover art. You can take this thing into the car without worrying about the CDs falling everywhere. They should probably have called it With the Lights Out: Travel Edition.

Unless you're like me (a completist sucker), then I don't know why you would buy this album. There are a few problems with the box set, and people like to knock it, but it's really a decent buy. Just go out and drop the sixty buck instead of picking up this scam.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


Saw (2/5)

Now that the sequel is hitting theaters I figured I'd put up my thoughts on the original. Judging by the rule of sequels and the above score I can't say that I'll drop ten dollars on Saw II. We'll see how it does opening weekend.

The original Saw opens up with an interesting premise. Two guys wake up in a room, it's not that kind of movie! They're both chained to the wall and given a...wait for it, wait for it...SAW! Through the course of the film they have to follow various clues in order to find a way out of the room. There is also a countdown they have to worry about.

The writers aren't able to make this premise fully work, and are forced to resort to flashbacks and a side story involving Danny Glover. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. First, because the flashback allows us to see Jigsaw's, the mysterious villain, more elaborate traps. Second, because you just can't complain when Murtaugh is on screen.

The Jigsaw traps are clever, and involve barbed wire, someone getting burned to death, and a contraption that could potentially tear off someone's jaw. I won't get into too much detail for those of you who haven't seen this movie. I'll save the spoilers for later.

There's a lot of nitpicking you could do on the first two-thirds of the film. For example, the flashback are supposed to be told by one character but include things he never would have seen or known about, the camera effects are annoying, and the surviving victim has a really dumb line. I was able to ignore these because it was an interesting premise and had potential. However, I was unable to ignore the last third of the film which had some of the laziest screenwriting I've seen in a while.

**Spoiler Alert** **Spoiler Alert** **Spoiler Alert** **Spoiler...oh, you get the idea.

Cary Elwes gets out of character at the end of the film. For most of the movie he's a calm and collected, but turns on the overacting button at the very end. This isn't all of his fault because he has to sell certain actions that make no sense. Early in the film Elwes' character Dr. Gordon tells Adam, the other man in the room, to use his shirt to get an object out of reach. At the end of the film Dr. Gordon has to reach a cell phone in order to find out if his family is all right. Instead of following his own advice, he decides to cut off his own leg. I know everybody's been waiting for this the entire film, but does it have to be so contrived. The worst part is that he does take off his shirt, but only to use it as a tourniquet!

One of the big surprises of the film is that the man who we've been lead to believe is Jigsaw is in fact merely being used by Jigsaw. It turns out that Jigsaw has given him a poison and won't give him the antidote unless he follows his instructions. We've seen this character before as an orderly at a hospital. Let me repeat that:, he works at a hospital. So, instead of telling one of his coworkers that he's been poisoned, he decides to get involved with an elaborate scheme of kidnapping, and even goes so far as to try and kill someone. I know that if I was presented with those two choices I would definitely go for the latter.

The single big surprise the filmmakers graciously leave for the end is the identity of Jigsaw. Jigsaw is actually a cancer patient we see for a total of three seconds during the movie. It also turns out that the dead body is not actually dead, but this same cancer patient who has been sitting there perfectly still for the entire movie. Whoa! You mean to tell me that extra number 37 was Jigsaw this entire time? No way! I should have guessed, it was right in front of me the whole time.

I've seen better twist endings from a Scooby-Doo episode. That's not hyperbole either. If you want to see how it should be done check out The Usual Suspects or the original Scream. Those are surprise endings where you don't feel cheated.

It's a real shame that the writers came up with such an original idea, but chose to get incredibly lazy for the last third of the movie. If you really want to see a well done horror film that actually uses one set, go check out Cube. The acting isn't better, but the execution is far more interesting.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Nirvana - Nirvana

Nirvana - Nirvana (2/5)

I figured that since a new post-humous Nirvana album is coming out in less than a week, I might as well throw up an old review I had written about their "best of." Enjoy.

I'm sure the first thing that's going through your mind is, "Where is 'Aneurysm?'" My thoughts exactly. This collection makes it easy to complain about what songs were included and what songs were left out. Why do they give us "Been a Son" and not Negative Creep? Why do we have to buy an import for "Where Did You Sleep Last Night?" I could go on and on about what was included ant what wasn't, but the point of the matter is that there are only fourteen songs. I know we've entered the twenty-first century, and our attention spans are almost non-existent, but please give us something for our money.

The track listing makes things awkward as well. Nirvana's three studio albums have very distinct characteristics, and it would have been difficult for anyone to come up with a best of that had a good flow to it, but sometimes it feels like they didn't even try to make it sound cohesive. Putting "You Know You're Right" as the first song feels counter intuitive to say the least.

I know the purpose of the album is to reel in the uninitiated, but it would have been nice for them to add another new song or two for the die-hards. Nirvana has such a small catalogue, much of it essential, that any Nirvana fan will likely have these songs. The only exception is "You Know You're Right" and a new sound mix of "Pennyroyal Tea."

If you're already a fan, my suggestion is to make your own Nirvana: Best Of and give it to someone who is thinking about making a purchase. Here is my suggestion for a track listings:
1. Smells Like Teen Spirit
2. Son of a Gun
3. Heart Shaped Box
4. Drain You
5. Negative Creep (live)
6. Come As You Are
7. About a Girl
8. Rape Me
9. Sliver
10. Lithium
11. Verse Chorus Verse
12. Polly
13. Lake of Fire (live, acoustic)
14. In Bloom
15. Radio Friendly Unit Shifter
16. Aneurysm
17. Dumb
18. White Lace and Strange (live)
19. Do Re Mi (acoustic)
20. You Know You're Right
21. All Apologies
22. Where Did You Sleep Last Night? (live, acoustic)

You have to admit that mine easily trumps the Geffen best of. Of course that's not saying much, and I'm sure there's some guy out there that has an even better track listing. I do have a slight advantage because I'm using box-set songs (one from each disc) which was released after Nirvana, but Geffen should have had access to just about everything Cobain put to eight track (and that they could wrestle from Courtney Love).

If you are interested in the band, but have yet to make a purchase, just go out and get Nevermind, In Utero, and Live In New York. They're all essential for serious music fans. The other Nirvana albums are good, but mostly just for the die-hards.

If you really feel like buying the album be my guest. You can think of it as padding Fracis Bean's college fund.

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Depeche Mode - Playing the Angel

Depeche Mode – Playing the Angel (4/5)

“I don't wanna sound like a queer or nothin', but I think Depeche Mode is a sweet band!”
- Orgazmo!

I must first confess that I don’t have much of a history with Depeche Mode. Next I have to confess that I actually saw Orgazmo. I know, I know, the movie sucks, but that was a funny running gag. Back to Depeche Mode: sure, I remember getting tired of “Personal Jesus” and thinking that “Enjoy the Silence” was a much better single, but I don’t own any of their CDs and have never seen them in concert. About four years ago I finally heard Violator in its entirety and have been exposed to a good deal of Exciter. Oh, and I have also tried the delicious Jones© drink Depeach Mode. If you never end up listening to this album, you should at least pick up that drink if you can find it.

I was surprised at the opening of the album, which greets you with a wall of white noise. This is one of several moments that recall industrial music from a decade or so back. There are several other times where Depeche Mode employ caustic sounds in the middle of a pop glean. In any event, “A Pain That I’m Used To” is an effective and aggressive opener.

This segues into the dancier John the Revelator. At this point some of you may be having flashbacks to that “Personal Jesus” dance from back and the day, but I promise this is much better. In fact it’s probably my favorite song off the album.

Well, maybe my second favorite, because “Precious” is eightiestastic! This song recalls that famed decade the most – and I mean that in a good way.

Much of the rest of the album falls into more atmospherics. I know what you’re thinking, “It’s one of those albums that ‘reveals itself,’” but that’s a good thing, really it is! Playing the Angel is actually far better than it needs or should be. These guys have been around longer than I’ve been alive (and I’m not that young anymore). Depeche Mode does a fine job of sounding relevant without falling into the trap of trying to “modernize” their sound. It all comes off rather well.

The only problem I really have with the album, is the fact that the lyrics get a little heavy handed at times. This is to be expected, and probably will only bother those completely unfamiliar with the band.

Perhaps one of the things that bodes well for the band are all of those eighties bands that started popping up several years back: The Killers, Hot Hot Heat, Interpol, Stellastarr*, and plenty others. There’s seems to be place for Depeche Mode now. Depeche Mode doesn’t sound like they’re competing with these bands, but rather that they influenced these bands, which is how it should be. After hearing most of Exciter I wouldn’t necessarily say this album is a return to form as I would say the world has shifted so people can see a new angle to Depeche Mode, and appreciate them once again


Unleashed (3.5/5)

Unleashed was written by Luc Besson, the man responsible for some unique action films (La Femme Nikita, The Professional, and The Fifth Element) as well as a few train wrecks (The Transporter and The Messenger painfully spring to mind). This time Besson falls back on the basic outline he created in La Femme Nikita and The Professional: emotionally dead action hero(ine) finds his/her humanity. It's kind of like The Professional, but with a feral Jet Li and not quite as much pedophilia.

In my opinion, this is the first successful American Jet Li movie. It is about time someone wrote an actual character for him. Supposedly Besson wrote the script with Jet Li in mind, and I kind of wish Besson had directed the movie as well. At times the director at the helm doesn't know what to do when the action slows down, and assuming no one has an attention span, he reverts to quick cuts and wacky camera techniques. I must admit, though, that when the action begins he seems to know what he's doing.

This films has great choreography, and if anyone is actually bored with the attempts at characterization, they should be pleased when the music starts to pick up. These fight scenes are brutal. The director seems to relish the cringe inducing sounds accompanied by people getting bitten, hit in the crotch, and (my personal favorite) getting head-butted.

The music is provided by Massive Attack, and while it probably won't be a great soundtrack on its own it's interesting enough without being distracting. It also is a unique use of electronic music in an action film that doesn't just turn the base up when the action starts.

Oh, yeah, and it turns out that Jet Li is actually an actor! I would never have guessed because not a single American film has treated him like one. Here he does a good job that could easily have been laughable. Bob Hoskin kicks ass in just about everything he does, and this is no exception. Of course a movie like this it dips into sentimentality once or twice, but thanks to Morgan Freeman it doesn't get out of hand.

I have been starving for a good action movie for a while, and it's nice to finally find sustenance. The movie has its share of flaws (don't even ask about all the stuff that's unexplained), but that's a small complaint when there's a unique premise and some great action.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Spiderman 2

Spiderman 2 (5/5)

Better than the original. I'm sure plenty of people will hear that when they hear people talk about this movie, and what can I say except that it's true. Yes, that's right expect numbers to be divisible by zero, mass to exceed the speed of light, objects to fall faster than 9.8 m/s^2, and Wile E. Coyote to remain in the air even after he has looked down, because a sequel has bested the original. Spiderman 2 has joined that rare pantheon of films that are actually better than the original: Terminator 2, The Empire Strikes Back, and Dawn of the Dead to name a few (and the last one's stretching it).

At the heart of this movie is an actor who has really grown into his own and taken America's heart by storm. He's always been talented, but this is the movie that has really catapulted him to superstardom. That's right, Alfred Molina, you had me at "Throw me the idol, I throw you the whip." Seriously though, Alfred Molina has been in every movie ever, and I didn't even know it until I saw this movie last year. He must have a bet going with Jude Law to see who can be in more films. Of course, he does a fine job in this film, and must be a really good actor because I didn't recognize I had seen him previously in about fifty movies, he just blends into the character.

Everyone does an excellent job in this film (except for Kirstin Dunst. Now that we know Topher Grace is going to be in the next film can't he bring over the redhaired chick from That 70's Show to play Mary Jane). Actors are often reiterating that comedy is the hardest thing to do (although it doesn't seem like the Academy is ever listening to them), and in Spiderman 2 they not only need to master comedy but make believable drama in the midst of complete fantasy. This change of gears isn't an easy thing to do I'm sure. At one pivotal point in the film Peter Parker has to confess to his aunt that he was responsible for her husband's death, and later in the film there is a montage that can only be described as an homage to sixties television. Tobe Maguire is able to play these extremes confidently and sells us the character in both scenes.
The biggest strength of this film is that Sam Raimi is able to mesh together so many genres without it seeming jarring. During the course of the film it takes on the characteristics of a drama, comedy, romance, horror, action-adventure, cartoon, monster movie, and none feels forced or out of place. Most of these genres aren't subservient to the others either. It could just as easily be argued that this film is a comedy as it could be argued that it is it is a drama or action-adventure. I have rarely seen this even a mixture of genre without the film itself feeling uneven.

Speaking of comedy, that is the single biggest advance between this film and the last. In the original Spiderman they just expected us to accept the cheesy lines as camp. This was fine for those who had read old comics before, but those who didn't just thought it was cheesy. The aforementioned montage to Rain Drops Keep Falling on My Head is perhaps the biggest risk the film takes, but the film makers are so confident that it works perfectly. It is easily the funniest part of the film.

What makes the Spiderman films in general so great is that Sam Raimi really believes that these characters have depth. In fact, I don't think I've seen two films since this movie came out, coming from a major Hollywood studio, with characters as developed as these are. Sam Raimi is not afraid to put real people in the middle of what can be essentially a big cartoon. This is only fitting because that was the exact characteristic that made Stan Lee such a genius. In Raimi, Stan Lee has someone who truly understands his creation.

There are some wonderful scenes in here (besides the montage, which I decided I might as well mention a third time), but if you haven't seen the movie I'll just let you discover them for yourself. It really is the kind of movie you hope they make every summer, but are usually disappointed by. It kicks ass for two hours, and when you thought it couldn't get better Willem Dafoe shows up to call James Franco a pussy. Great movie.

Saturday, October 15, 2005


Serenity (4/5)

I'll preface this review with the fact that I was a Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and over the summer a friend of mine introduced me to the boxed set of Firefly, so I wasn't going into this movie with a blank slate. I will also divulge that I'm a big Joss Whedon fan (except for Alien Resurrection, what the fuck?). This review will of course be biased.

I'll get through the problems with this film first (there aren't that many). The biggest hurdle that Whedon had in transferring his show into a movie was characterization, and he doesn't quite clear it. There are nine main characters in the show, and how the hell are you going to juggle nine characters in a two hour span when you're used to having years of examining each of their intriguing facet? I have no clue, and apparently neither did Whedon. Whedon's able to differentiate everyone because he's a master of dialogue, but for the uninitiated I don't think the major points of drama in the film will resonate like it will with those who watched the TV show. For those who are familiar with the television show it's really a treat to find out how everything ends(?) (*dun-dunn-dunnn*).

As for the rest of the was great! (I was having trouble holding in the inner fanboy). Having a larger budget really allowed Whedon to show what he could do with a bigger brush. I must admit that I was worried Whedon might be too acclimated to television to handle the Big Screen. These worries were thankfully unfounded. Whedon knows how to use action without supplanting the story. There's some good choreography, and he's smart enough of a director to allow the viewers to follow the action instead of substituting quick cuts thinking the audience will think they're excited. Towards the end the kind of action expands but I never felt I was lost in the spectacle of special effects.

This was also a great film for Whedon to showcase his visual talents. With a relatively small budget (I think it was 40 million) he is able to immerse us into a believable and unique world. He is also smart enough to vary the landscape. The viewer is treated to a Hong Kong style city, the familiar border towns, and a place that looks like it came out of Frank Lloyd Wright's imagination.

There is a very Whedon feel to this movie. As anyone who has watched Firefly or Buffy knows, when you're watching those shows you feel that not only are you getting to know the characters on screen but the creator behind those characters as well. One of Whedon's great abilities is to make sure the audience is never complacent. For example, the opening consists of a scene where River is being taught at school, but soon we find out that this is going on inside her head and we're really being treated to a scene where her brother Simon is breaking her out of a secret government facility, but wait, this turns out to be merely surveillance video (hologram?) the villain is watching of their escape. It sounds very clumsy in print, but is used to great effect as the movie's opener. There are plenty of other surprises in the film, but I don't want to spoil anything more.

Well, I'd better stop praising Joss Whedon lest people think I'm gay. Lets just say that people should be pleased with this movie (probably Firefly fans more than novices). Oh, and there's an allusion to "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," and I can't tell you how long I've been waiting to hear that in a science fiction western originating on television.