Monday, June 28, 2010


Predator (5/5)

With the impending resurrection of the true Predator series, I have decided to revisit the franchise from the beginning. I do not promise to make it all the way to the Alien v. Predator films (Predators in Antarctica? Did they not see the first two movies?), but I figured that with the soon to be released third film in the series, Predators, I should make the effort to re-familiarize myself with one of film’s great monsters. Besides, how will I know what’s going on in Predators if I don’t see the first two movies?

The director, John McTiernan, made Predator shortly before his creative and economic peak. He would soon go on to direct Die Hard, a film that would not only create an entirely new sub-genre of action films (the trapped on a boat/train/bus/space station movie) but also enter into the pop-culture consciousness as the essence of what an action film can and should do. But at this point in his career he was just some guy that made a movie where Pierce Brosnan wore an intimidating beard.

The plot of Predator is relatively straight forward. Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) leads an elite team of mercenaries who are called on by an old friend at the CIA, Dillon (Carl Weathers), to rescue two CIA field operatives who have gone missing in South America. Despite Dutch’s policy that his team works alone (he also stipulates that the team only works rescue missions), Dillon forces himself onto the operation as a liaison between the mercenaries and the government. Naturally, tensions mount since just about everyone on the team considers Dillon an out of practice pencil pusher. Whenever a film like this creates a dichotomy between those who are shot at and those who sit behind desks, you can guarantee that the desk jockeys are not on the level. Sure enough, when Dutch and his team discover the hidden encampment of the rebel guerillas and destroy it with the usual 1980s level of orgiastic violence, they realize that the actual mission was to destroy the guerillas and not to rescue the CIA officers. This goes against Dutch’s mercenary ethics (oxymoron?) and he is furious with Dillon.

You’ll notice that I have yet to mention the predator, and that’s because up until this point in the film he has made little more than small cameo appearances. We see his ship drop into the Earth’s atmosphere in the beginning of the film and during the team’s trek to find the enemy camp, snippets of the film are shown in Pred-o-vision as the alien studies his prey and records some of their conversations. In fact, the screenplay has a bit of a dual personality. It acts like a modern day man on a mission movie with a little bit government backstabbing thrown in for good measure, but all of a sudden aliens show up and it becomes an entirely different story. In lesser hands this would have torn the film in two, but the man on the mission movie serves to heighten the tension. Like the films Jaws and Alien, McTiernan is smart enough to leave the big reveal until about halfway through the film (and even then the predator is still wearing a mask so we don’t get to see his face until the final moments of the movie). The entire time the audience is left wondering what exactly this alien looks like and when it will strike.

Once the team heads back to the rendezvous point, they soon discover that they are being hunted by something that is near invisible and interested in picking them off one at a time. By the end of the film Dutch is the only man left. Through complete luck he discovers that covering himself with mud prevents the creature, who sees through heat, from seeing him. Dutch uses this tactical knowledge in order to even the odds for the final confrontation. In a common film motif, Dutch must discard all of his modern weaponry and face the predator with only weapons he can fashion out of the forest. Scenes like this, when the hero must rely on only the most primitive tools, evoke a realization that living on this planet is not too far from the living on that island those British school children landed on in Lord of the Flies. Tellingly, Dutch lets out a primordial scream in order to call the predator to battle.

When so many modern blockbusters are trying to be novels, stretching their running time long beyond the 120 minute mark, there is something refreshing when a film like Predator aims to be the perfect short story. The structure of the film is as streamlined as a fighter plan, giving the audience all the information it really needs shortly after the opening credits. We see the alien ship drop to Earth and are informed by Dillon that they need to rescue some prisoners. Then we’re off. That’s not to say the film doesn’t make use of some great tension before the predator is introduced, but that the simplicity of the film becomes a strength and not a detriment. A consequence of this terse plotting is that several subplots are never really resolved. We never know what happens when Dutch returns to civilization after realizing he had been duped, and the real world cynic versus mercenary with a heart of gold standoff between Dutch and Dillon is never truly resolved. But McTiernan realizes that these conflicts are more important for the tension they create rather than their resolution. We all know the CIA is corrupt, but the last thing this movie needs is a denouement where Dutch stands before a congressional hearing.

The condensed nature of the film extends to the cast of characters as well. The filmmakers use the Huey copter ride to give us all the information we need on who these mercenaries are, and, with the precision and grace of a silent kill, they do so with nothing more than a few lines of dialogue. We get Blain (Jesse Ventura) chewing on tobacco and offering some to his fellow soldiers. When they refuse he claims the tobacco would make each one into a “sexual tyrannosaurus rex” like him, naturally (I’m obviously editing out some of this dialogue). He’s the kind of guy who would get on your nerves just because he could. Hawkins (Shane Black) is first seen reading a comic book and apparently is the gang’s source of scatological humor. Throughout the film he attempts to make Billy (Sonny Landham as the unfortunately stereotypically stoic American Indian) to laugh by telling him absurdly misogynistic jokes. While this gag relies on easy stereotypes (yes, Billy is also an excellent tracker), it also creates a sense of camaraderie between the soldiers. Mac (Bill Duke) is first seen sharpening a knife, and throughout the film he plays his character as on the edge. He first threatens to murder Dillon in the middle of the jungle if he gives away their position (“I’ll bleed you. Real quiet like”), and later he goes full PTSD when his best friend Blain dies, at one point he giving a soliloquy to the moon about how the two of them were the only men to survive out of their entire platoon. Of course, given Mac’s mental state, he is an unreliable narrator of his own history. Like most of the relations in this film, and in the best short stories, whole histories are implied but not fully illuminated. (Note to McTiernan: please never make a prequel to this film. I don’t need to know that Blain became a mercenary because his father was decapitated by a Jedi).

But the heart of the film is really the predator. A lot of credit must go to the over seven foot tall actor, Kevin Peter Hall. Hall manages to infuse the predator with a lot of personality, a difficult task when you are hidden underneath a heavy suit. His movements are simultaneously graceful and unearthly, avoiding the usual clumsiness that accompanies a performance underneath a monster suit. Certain stretches of the film focus solely on the predator’s ritualistic trophy making, using the skulls of his dispatched enemies, and without a capable actor these moments would be, at best, un-engaging and, at worst, laughable. However, Hall plays the creature as someone who is deliberate and smart. He plans and he also has a code of ethics (he won’t kill those who are incapable of defending themselves).

Of course the predator wouldn’t be such an iconic creature if he didn’t also have a great design. Like the performance by Hall, Stan Winston’s design manages to be both otherworldly and grounded in terrestrial cultures. The most striking aspects to the predator are his dreadlocked hair and reptilian skin. Not only is this an unusual combination, but it makes a kind of dream sense. After all, what else would you utilize in order to represent an alien creature that apparently lives in the most extreme tropical climates?

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Predator is that its premise seems so flimsy and yet the film succeeds despite itself. Just try to explain the premise of the film to someone who hasn’t seen it: “A band of mercenaries are hunted down by an extraterrestrial from beyond the stars.” A description of the film makes it sound like direct to video material. But the filmmakers took the premise seriously. Even Schwarzenegger limits himself to one bad pun. What’s more, the movie is endlessly quotable (“If it bleeds, we can kill it;” “I ain’t got time to bleed”), which usually means the film was in careful hands from the screenplay stage. The ability of the filmmakers to turn what could have been the plot to an Ed Wood film and turn it into a minor classic not only speaks to the quality of work for those involved, but also to the power of film. There is a reason many of the earliest filmmakers, like Melies, were also magicians, because given enough film magic, a movie can make the audience believe anything.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists - Brutalist Bricks

Ted Leo & The Pharmacists – Brutalist Bricks (5/5)

In his anthemic, chorus crushing song, “Waiting for the Great Leap Forward,” Billy Bragg sings, “Mixing Pop and Politics he asks me what the use is/I offer him embarrassment and my usual excuses.” Within the narrative of the song, the question is posed to Billy during the last call moments at a pub, and it carries a sense of drunk cynicism. It is also the question that Ted Leo, a musician deeply influenced by Billy Braggs punk and politics, has been posing to himself, both in song and interviews, for most of his career. Can an artist deliver the complications of politics through the streamlined joys of a pop melody? It’s a question that every artist who trades in choruses and hooks that go straight for the mainline must ask. After all, if politics, as the philosopher once said, are an ideology that separates the individual from his or her real condition, then can the pop music, with its inherent brevity and disposability, perform the work of impacting a listener’s consciousness enough to make these conditions known?

At times Ted Leo has suggested in interviews that pop music can’t accomplish this kind of consciousness shifting, but, rather, all it can hope to do is preach to the converted. This tension between wanting to craft a political anthem within the confines of pop music shifts to the forefront of his latest album, The Brutalist Bricks, and is perhaps best exemplified by the song “Ativan Eyes.” The song begins with a call to action, sprinkled with a little Karl Marx, but, before even the first chorus, abruptly shifts into the idioms of a love song: “The industry’s out of touch / The means of production are now in the hands of the worker / But I just want to be touched by your expert hands.” Here the metaphorical hands of labor are transformed into the hands of that oldest of rock and roll traditions, a woman to pine for. The mash up between politics and pop is jarring. The split roles of “Ativan Eyes” mirror the forked expectations for popular rock and roll: those who are listening for tidbits of lyrics to live their lives to and those who want something to that will move their feet.

Fittingly, Ted Leo name checks the stridently leftist hardcore band Flux of Pink Indians part way through “Ativan Eyes,” and longtime fans of Leo will notice the influence of hardcore music on Brutalist Bricks. Both “The Stick” and “Where Was My Brain?” are more aggressive than anything Ted Leo has previously put to disc, even the consciously stripped down Shake the Sheets. Both songs play at one point or another to the nostalgia for music that, like Flux of Pink Indians, could impact how one sees the world during the most vulnerable time in our life, our teenage years. On “The Stick,” a song that moves along with some clipped chords but on more than one occasion threatens to devolve into feedback and noise, Ted Leo intones, “Play an ancient mixtape, try to break from your routine,” suggesting the power inherent in returning to the same music that once shifted how we saw the world. And on “Where Was My Brain?,” he sings “We had the best of an imperfect world” in one of Leo’s perfectly placed anthems.

Ted Leo’s interest in hardcore careens across the album and finds its way into songs that aren’t as readily impacted by the genre as “The Stick” and “Where Was My Brain?” The entire album bursts with the type of energy that most bands manage to infuse on their first or second album, but can rarely muster on their sixth release. The album opener, “The Mighty Sparrow,” begins, as if mid-sentence, with the statement, “When the cafĂ© doors exploded, I reacted too / Reacted to you” and doesn’t let up over the course of two and a half minutes, which includes two false endings and an instrumental outro. The song “Mourning in America” not only references that all time favorite target of hardcore punk bands, Ronald Reagan, but also backs the verses with frenetic guitar play. The song is a testament to Ted Leo’s ability to craft political songs that speak to the moment while referencing the past. Similarly, Living with the Living, often took aim at the Iraq War by circumventing it altogether and choosing instead to recall America’s forays into reshaping South American politics (a move that hasn’t borne out all that well since several of our American backed “candidates,” including Augusto Pinochet, have found themselves in front of war crimes tribunals).

Even though Brutalist Bricks shares a more cohesive sonic thesis than the stylistically diverse Living with the Living, Ted Leo hasn’t lost the ability to change genres with the same ease as changing a radio station. Leo has transformed “One Polaroid a Day” from the radio ready tune fans recognized at his live show into a slow burn funk number. For many fans this seems like a perplexing decision. Why, after all, might Ted Leo weaken one of his catchiest songs with an, arguably, unnecessary genre shift? We might explain this move by pointing towards Leo’s anxiety that pop music’s slickness is at odds with any potential message. That, or maybe he was listening to a lot of Curtis Mayfield when it came time to record the song. “Tuberculoids Arrive in Hops,” a meditation on the importation of disease to the New World from Europe, is a quiet moment of lo-fi folk that would sound at home on a Sebadoh album.

Perhaps all a musician can really do provide a message to those who are already ready to hear it. A song, after all, is unlikely to change your life. That doesn’t mean Leo doesn’t try, and there are plenty of rousing numbers we have come to expect from Ted Leo. Chief among these is “Bottled in Cork,” a song that narrates Leo’s excursion abroad, and, although it begins discussing the United Nations, the story moves quickly from the political to the personal. In a sense it is the diametric opposite of Heart of Oak’s “Ballad of the Sin Eater,” whose chorus was “You didn’t think they could hate you.” “Ballad of the Sin Eater” told of expatriate adventures following America’s reaction to 9/11, but unlike that earlier song, “Bottled in Cork tells of growing older and befriending the locals. The song is a reminder that, if nothing else, the converted need to be reminded now and then that the conditions of the world are not stagnant and with a little faith and a lot of work things can change. Whatever side you fall on the pop and politics debate, we might ask ourselves what our outlook on politics and life might be if we had not discovered X band at Y moment in our life.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Nirvana - Bleach (20th Anniversary Edition)

Nirvana - Bleach (20th Anniversary Edition)

I never held Bleach in much esteem. Without the subsequent triumphs of later albums, my thinking went, Nirvana's first studio effort would have most likely drifted out of the public consciousness, and its importance mostly lies as an artifact for die hard Nirvana fans only. Sub-Pop's reissue of Nirvana's first album, then, provides an excellent opportunity, not just to bask in the new high fi sheen of the album, but also to reassess Bleach's place within Nirvana's catalogue and within the rock and roll canon.

Of course, what you'll notice first is the tremendous clean up job Sup-Pop managed on this recording. From the initial intro of "Blew's" rising and falling bass line to Cobain's growl on album closer, "Downer," the entire album sounds much deeper and more compelling. Noveselic's bass and Channing's drums are given the their appropriate place alongside Cobain's lyrics and guitar, a reminder that Nirvana was always more than just a charismatic front man.

The jump in sound quality allowed me to really appreciate some of the slower numbers on the album. Before the reissue, I always considered it hopelessly front loaded-some great tracks in the first half ("Blew," "About a Girl," and "School") but tended to lose itself towards the end. The remastered sound helped me appreciate the way that Nirvana was playing around with texture on the album. "Paper Cuts," for instance, begins with the gnarled sounds of stiffled guitar and feedback while Cobain does a sing-scream call and response. These moments of aggression are offset by twin verses that break into shimmering guitars and a classic Nevermind-like melody, which, of course, are distorted once again into the "ugly" moments. It took the reissue to really show me how much Nirvana could accomplish on a song like this with only three members.

In fact, the reissue brings out much of the metallic psychedelia that pervades the album. Tracks that once seemed like misfits, "About a Girl" and "Love Buzz," now sound like an extension of the 60s psychedelia that clearly influenced the album. "About a Girl" now sounds like one of the pretty songs the Beatles might insert on their later more drug influence (or drug enhanced if you like) work, much like how "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," precedes "Happiness is a Warm Gun" on the White Album. "About a Girl's" twisted use of a love song melody to sing about a prostitute speaks to the death of a sixties, and the album's discontinuity between faux-naivete and pounding metal might be viewed as a continuation of that theme.

Cobain spoke of and wrote about the missed opportunities of the 1960s cultural revolution that appeared to die an ugly death a decade later. And one cannot help but imagine a burnt out hippie when Cobain sings "They make their living with arts and crafts / The kinds with seashells, driftwood and burlap" on "Swap Meet." "Sifting," with its hypnotizingly slow progression and intonation of what "teacher said" and "preacher said," could have been written by Jefferson Airplane in an alternate universe where they were somehow heavily influence by the Melvins. Breaking the five minute mark, "Sifting" is the longest cut on the album and its bridge is augmented by notes bent into ghostly moans and echoes, suggesting the kind of bad trip Peter Fonda experienced in Easy Rider.

Revisiting Bleach after all these years proved to be much more beneficial than I would have thought. The reissue has allowed me to come to terms, unexpected ways, with an album I never truly knew what to do with in. In a sense Bleach provides not only evidence of where Nirvana came from, but also perhaps where the band might return to if only given enough time. I can no longer see Bleach as merely a peripheral album from a band who could go on to do bigger and better things, but can now confidently assert that even without the chart topping sequels, overfilled arenas and countless magazine covers, to this day Bleach would be treated as the diamond in the rough that it truly is.