Sunday, July 25, 2010

Wolf Parade - Expo 86

Wolf Parade – Expo 86 (4/5)

Nostalgia is often a profoundly personal kind of wistfulness. A Proustian moment, after all, relies on our senses to stimulate deeply idiosyncratic memories. But there are times where nostalgia becomes a runaway meme, infecting a whole generation for decades at a time, and, as much as we would like to forget, there was a period of time in the early 21st century where we were all nostalgic for the eighties. Not only were we inundated with VH1’s nostalgia porn, but a slew of bands that were aping early eighties new wave (from Futureheads to Interpol to Hot Hot Heat) came out like a stampeding herd. Many of these bands were kind enough to move away from their eighties sound in a gambit for a larger audience which in turn allowed us to forget the indignity of once showing up to a party dressed like Ralph Maccio. Wolf Parade, who initially built their sound on bouncy keyboards, might have been lumped in with the new wave of new wave bands until their sophomore album, At Mount Zoomer, put those associations behind them. It is strange, then, that they have opted to trade in on nostalgia once again for their third album, Expo 86.

The album’s title is a reference to the 1986 World’s Fair held in Wolf Parade’s home country of Canada, and the album art is flanked on the front and back by children mugging for the camera in color washed Transformers-the-cartoon era photographs. This is a great example of how the entire album, from artwork to liner notes to the music itself, impacts how we listen to the music. The themes of nostalgia and childhood might not strike those who bought the mp3 version of the album as heavily as those who own the physical copy. The cover art might prepare the listener for Wolf Parade’s return to some of the aesthetics of their first album. While At Mount Zoomer dispensed with the keyboards filtered through a circuit board in favor of much a cleaner plucking sound of ivories, Expo 86 has brought back a more synthetic sound that harkens back to when the photograph of the front cover were taken.

In addition to an aesthetic return, the lyrics are full of longing for the past. The most obvious song to trade in on nostalgia is the Dan Boeckner penned song “Little Golden Age.” In addition to the song title, the lyrics speak to the pull of the past and the intersection between music and our adolescence: “Then you left town feeling pretty down / With your headphones and your coat and your dirty graduation gown you were / In the bedroom singing radio songs.” Much has been made of the difference between Boeckner and Krug’s songwriting. Often Krug has been represented as the more experimental and abstract artist while Boeckner has been described as the more conventional musician more concerned with traditional pop songs. This dichotomy isn’t accurate exactly, but here Boeckner’s more grounded lyrics become one of the strengths of the album. It’s his songs that thematically guide most of Expo 86. “Ghost Pressure,” a song whose very title invokes the idea of a lingering past, recounts a lover’s kiss on the suitably suburban sounding street of “Orchard road” while the song “Palm Road” (a theme is forming) is propelled by the driving beat of Springsteenian drums to summon the spirit of a teenage road trip. These songs are the bricks that build the foundation of Expo 86 and ensure that, despite the divergent personality of the two principle songwriters, this latest release by Wolf Parade is more than just a collection of disparate songs, but rather a cohesive work of art from start to finish.

If At Mount Zoomer was characterized by songs that took their time getting to their particular destination, then Expo 86 can be described as a work that goes straight for the jugular. The songs have an energy that can be exhaustive. This newfound concern with grabbing the listener by the lapels and yelling in his or her face is reinforced by the production, which, unfortunately, pushes every instrument to the top of the mix. There isn’t even a palate cleanser like “Fine Young Cannibals” or “Dinner Bells.” The result is a lack of dynamics. Fortunately, the strength of Wolf Parade’s songwriting manages to push through these slight problems. Expo 86 is proof that Wolf Parade is more than just some Handsome Furs and Sunset Rubdown songs thrown on a single album. Instead, it is a find example of how two artists can cause an indelible impression on the other.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Predators (3.5/5)

Predators was tasked with the impossible job of setting a bruised and battered series back on course while reminding people of the great film that christened the endeavor from the beginning. After the Aliens vs. Predator films regulated the predators to bystanders in the sub-hack-and-slash horror genre, it had become evident that it was time for something different. I’m pleased to say that, while hardly the classic of the first film, Predators manages to inject new life into a science fiction concept that is both exceedingly simple but also capable of a myriad amount of variation.

Predators begins with Royce (Adrien Brody) plummeting through the atmosphere, unconscious. He realizes that he has been equipped with a parachute that deploys automatically, saving us from an incredibly short film. Confused and lost, Royce finds himself in the middle of an unknown jungle, but still armed with whatever weapons were, presumably, on him before being whisked away. By starting in media res, the film shows the audience that it is interested in the same sort of lean, no nonsense storytelling of the first film. When Royce comes across several others who have been stranded along with him, including a Yakuza decked out in a full business suit, a wisecracking criminal, a female sniper, and, strangely enough, an ordinary primary care physician, among others, each character is drawn with nothing more than a quick sketch. We don’t need to know these guy’s backgrounds, we merely need to know that the series is going back to the mercenaries versus predators formula that has served it well in the past.

In one of the better scenes of the film, the stranded mercs come to a clearing to discover a series of strange moons and planets midway between waxing and waning in an alien sky. This is the twist that the predator sequels have been looking for ever since Predator 2 way back in 1990. By pushing the film outside of our solar system, the filmmakers have opened up a whole set of possibilities. The castaways not only discover that they are stranded on a game preserve (a twist that more closely allies the film with the short story, “The Most Dangerous Game”), but also suggests that there is some sort of civil war brewing between the predators. While many of these ideas are not fully capitalized on, they still show a sense of imagination and an earnest attempt to show the audience something we haven’t seen in a predator film before. I especially enjoyed the showdown between the katana wielding Yakuza and a predator, a scene that begs the question, did the predators ever visit feudal Japan? Perhaps this can be explored in the sequel, Predatorses.

But even as the film attempts to show us something new, there is also a back to basics mentality in Predators. The events of the first film are even recounted by the sniper, Isabelle, who explains how Dutch managed to defeat a predator. This is a smart maneuver because it avoids unnecessary scenes in which the characters rediscover the strengths and weaknesses of the predators, finally catching up with the audience. It also tells us to ignore most of the sequels, suggesting that this is the true heir McTiernan’s original, a connection the film highlights each time Alan Silvestri’s original score swells. But Predators (plural) never quite matches the storytelling quality of Predator (singular). The tension between the castaways in Predators isn’t used as well as the tension between Dillon and Dutch’s team of mercenaries. The story itself seems somewhat episodic as the humans stumble along from one danger to the next, seemingly without a plan.

The biggest curiosity of the film, however, is perhaps the strange turn by Adrien ‘The Pianist’ Brody. There is a certain amount of logic behind casting the wiry Brody in the role, since Danny Glover was also a step down from the vein popping biceps of Schwarzenegger. I’m pleased to say that Brody handles the role of action hero well. Not only has he trained for the role, but he manages to affect a gravel crusted voice that gives off enough of an I-don’t-care attitude for us to believe that this Polish piano player is now a hardened killer. No, if there is any fault in the film it does not lie with Brody. It is the fact that the film, for all of its ideas, never fully comes together in order to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For many, this means there will be plenty of arguments about which is the true heir to the original film, Predator 2 or Predators.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Batman vs. Predator

Batman vs. Predator (4/5)

The trend in versus comics, much like variant covers, 3D holograms, moving images, sub Mickey Spillane superheroes and titanium embossed pressings, reached its apex in the 1990s, a time when the big comic book publishers were more interested in figuring out how to get people to buy multiple issues of the exact same comic book than they were about telling an exciting story. My guess is that the publishers figured, if they included two popular characters in one comic, then fans of both of those characters would purchase an issue (hopefully one of each different cover) and, assuming there’s little overlap, they could double sales. The creators of Batman vs. Predator, however, must not have received the memo telling them that this was a cynical attempt at boosting sales because they went ahead and created a story that can reasonably be considered both a great Batman and a great Predator story.

Batman vs. Predator is modeled more closely after Predator 2 than the original film. But instead of giving off a whiff of ideas leftover from the movies, BvP manages to improve on the formula of the Predator sequel. Once again, part of the appeal is seeing the predator juxtaposed against an urban skyline, and, once again, the predator first takes aim at the city’s criminal elements. However, instead of goofy voodoo gangs, the predator preys on Gotham’s organized crime. Unlike the cartoonish gangs of Predator 2 (who arguably belong more in comic books than in films), the two opposing gangsters, Alex Yeager and Leo Brodin, are written with the difficult combination of economy and depth. The crime lords have achieved an uneasy truce, and this peace has allowed Yeager to transform himself into a legitimate businessman. Brodin, however, is still mired in his illegal dealings. He is also aided heavily by his overbearing mother who bears more than a slight resemblance to Angela Landsbury’s character in The Manchurian Candidate. These are real characters, not the usual cardboard cutouts horror films prop up in front of the monster to be torn apart.

But what really matters in these sorts of mash ups is whether the title characters work in the same story. The science fiction elements might, at first, seem out of place in a Batman comic. Sure, Batman has teamed up with other, more science fiction oriented superheroes, most notably Superman, but he is almost always at his best as a character when he’s mixing it up with the freaks and weirdoes in the gutters of Gotham. And yet the predator works as a villain. The first film, after all, meshed the man on a mission film with a science fiction story, so the predator creature is no stranger to finding himself comfortable in what should be unfamiliar territory. The writers smartly play up Batman’s detective skills as he attempts to determine what he’s up against, an element that proceeds nicely from the first two films.

Dave Gibbons, of Watchmen fame, wrote the story, and he has managed to make a tense action oriented comic that deftly combines elements from both films. His writing is aided by some masterful artwork by Andy Kubert. Kubert drenches each scene in a blue toned palette, but unlike some color tinting in films that cause a muddled look, here each shade of blue provides so much depth and vibrancy you could have sworn the artist harvested the hues of dusk. The result is a comic book that, strangely enough, is a worthier successor to the original film than some of the more recent “sequels.”

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Predator 2

Predator 2 (3/5)

A sequel should do at least two things: 1) respect the established world of the previous installment(s) and 2) contribute to the mythology. Aliens is the obvious example of a film that accomplished both these requirements. The film manages to expand the scope of the original by introducing the space marines and giving us a glimpse of the alien hierarchy while simultaneously exploring themes from the first film, including an interrogation of feminism, rape and the military industrial complex. Predator 2 is no Aliens. However, I am happy to say that for a film that has a bad reputation, this sequel to the Schwarzenegger classic holds up surprisingly well. At the very least, the movie does respect the rules honed in the first film, even if it never manages to truly justify its own existence.

Predator 2’s simple twist on the formula of the first film is that the predator is now in the city. In a clever opening shot, the camera pans along tropical looking flora until we see the skyline of Los Angeles. Supposedly, it was this new setting that turned Schwarzenegger off the project. Normally, when a principal actor turns down a role for the sequel (think Batman Forever and Batman and Robin) this indicates a deeply flawed shift in the series, but in this case Schwarzenegger isn’t missed. The strength of the first movie was the ensemble nature of the cast, not just the central protagonist, and the writers would have been forced to come up with something pretty outlandish in order to keep all the characters from the Predator in the sequel. (Although, Voodoo does play a key part of Predator 2, which likely means we were extremely close to a Predator versus Zombies movie. Hollywood, if you’re listening, I would love to see Predator tangle with a Zombie Blain).

This time, instead of the Governator, Danny Glover steps up as the man who must hunt the hunter. And while he may not have the ‘roided up muscles of Schwarzenegger, he brings an everyman quality to his character that grounds the more ostentatious sci-fi moments of the film. Glover plays Mike Harrigan, a police officer caught in the middle of the sweltering urban heat and an escalating gang war between Columbians and Voodoo practicing Jamaicans (Voodoo is mostly practiced among Haitians, but okay, I’ll bite). We are first introduced to Harrigan when he storms into a firefight between the police and a Columbian gang in order to save two downed officers. Draping two bullet proof vests over a car window, he places himself between the gang members and the wounded police and then manages to outflank several of the whooping and hollering Columbians. The rest of the gang take refuge in a high rise, but when Harrigan and his team attempt to flush them out, instead of entering into another firefight, he finds almost the entire gang slaughtered with their blood and body parts strewn across walls and floors.

Not only must Harrigan deal with a mysterious newcomer on the streets of LA, but he also must struggle with an unknown federal agency that wants to hobble Harrigan’s freewheeling attitude. Shortly after his heroics with the Columbian gang, Harrigan finds himself dressed down by Agent Keyes (Gary Busey) who tells him to play start playing by the rules. In a subplot borrowed from the Alien films, it turns out Keyes belongs to a government agency (that is eerily similar to the same organization shown in the film Repo Man) entrusted with capturing the predator and, more importantly, his technology. Oh, and Harrigan’s team been assigned a new, unproven member, Jerry, played to an obnoxious hilt by Bill Paxton. The film devotes most of its time to Harrigan and his team’s investigation into the predator and how their attempts to piece together who it is that has the gall to murder the most vicious of L.A.’s gangs, as well as more than a few cops.

Predator 2 keenly follows the formula and rules established in the first film. Fans of the original film will likely remember the female prisoner’s monologue about the predator’s predilection for extreme tropical climates, specifically stating that the creature would appear only during the hottest of summers (this is a part of the film that the makers of Alien Vs. Predator apparently forgot). In the sequel, the director has several characters make note of the asphalt melting heat and their uniforms are blotted with sweat stains, a nice allusion to the first film that respects the audience enough to let them make the connection. While the look of the predator stays true to the delineation of the first film, Stan Winston has tweaked the predator design for this film, providing this creature with crowded dreadlocks, an elongated skull and the reptilian designs of a copperhead snake. Towards the end of the film, we are treated with half a dozen or so different predators that both conform to the outlines of the alien from the first film and present a unique take on what a predator can look like.

Furthermore, the predator’s modus operandi isn’t much different, which turns out to be both a strength and a weakness. Once again, he searches for warriors, kills them and smuggles some trophies. This time, however, the predator eschews subtly for wholesale slaughter. Instead of picking enemies off one by one, he prefers to jump into the middle of a group and takes them out en mass. The brash tactics are never explained. Perhaps he’s a much younger predator, used to eating everything in the cookie jar rather than savoring them one by one. Age has a way of making you appreciate a kill. Unfortunately, this tactic makes the predator far less interesting. The first film formed a battle of wits between the predator and the mercenaries, but here the gangs and cops are completely outclassed. If he came to Earth to hunt game, then it hardly seems like a sport—kind of like Dick Cheney driving around in an SUV in order to shoot quails and his friend’s face. If there’s no effort then it’s no fun.

The director does manage to add his own stylized take on the urban predator. There is one particular scene that provides a glimpse of what the film could have been. The predator follows Harrigan to his meeting with King Willie, the leader of the Jamaican Voodoo gang. After Harrigan leaves, the predator plunges from the rooftops and into the alleyway. In a close shot we follow the invisible footsteps of the predator as he approaches King Willie who then brandishes two knives. We cut to an image of his face screaming, which, as the visage moves farther away, is revealed to be a decapitated head in the grasp of the predator. The filmmaker makes use of the indeterminate temporal nature of the cut—that we are never certain how much time has passed when a cut occurs—and what we expect to be an image from the middle of an intense brawl reveals itself as an easy kill for the predator.

It’s the filmmaker’s attempts to broaden the mythology where the film ultimately fails. This time around the predator has some new toys, including a boomerang death discus, a piano wire net and a double sided harpoon, and while the weaponry is fun, it adds little to the overall predator mythos. The filmmakers make another attempt at expanding the universe at the end of the film when Harrigan stumbles into the predator ship and notices a trophy display, containing, most famously, the head of an alien from that other franchise. When he finally kills the predator, one of the creature’s brethren hands Harrigan an 18th century pistol, suggesting that humans have served as game for the predators for centuries. But the fact that the predators have returned to Earth again and again was already established in the first film. We do discover more about the predator’s ethos when he refuses to kill Harrigan’s female companion because she’s with child, revealing that the predators are pro-life. This, of course, begs the question as to whether or not the predator has a Jesus fish on the back of his spaceship.

Perhaps the most mystifying change to the formula of the first film was the decision to make it take place in the future (or the past depending on whether you start from when I’m writing or when the film was made). Predator 2 takes place in 1997, a whole seven years from when it was made. Of course, it is a 1997 that looks strangely like 1990, but with weirder looking guns and police cars that look like hybrid mini-vans. The futuristic setting only serves to make the movie look older than it really is.

If the film only relied on momentum from the first film with a few new details, then I think it would have a much stronger reputation, but there are unfortunate performances throughout the movie. Bill Paxton, who has turned in strong roles before, is at his guffawing worst. The gangs are mostly cartoonish and are one step removed from Looney Tunes characters. That is, if Bugs Bunny often left mounds of coke lying around and, instead of replacing Rabbit Season signs with Duck Season signs, decided to ritualistically murder Daffy Duck. Shockingly, Gary Busey, who has transformed into a living breathing cartoon character himself, gives a nuanced performance by the standards of the film.

Predator 2 is a mixed bag of some old standbys and half formed ideas. It may not deserve the awful reputation it has garnered over the years, but it is far from the classic of the first. If you haven’t seen the film in a long time, I would recommend a second visit. You might be surprised at how entertaining the film still is.