Sunday, July 15, 2018

Random Thought #9

Sometimes, actors play the same kind of role multiple times.

Take Tom Wright. A character actor, IMDb lists 177 credits to his name, including appearances on Seinfeld, House MD, and Criminal Minds.

But I will always recognize him for two similar roles he played in a pair of horror films. Wright acted in both Creepshow 2 and Tales from the Hood in an expected just desserts anthology story. In both parts, he plays a character who is killed, and when it looks like his murderer(s) will escape justice, he returns from the dead to take his revenge.

Despite these parallels, there are a lot of differences, some superficial, some more significant.

Creepshow 2, a mediocre film from 1987, features Wright in its final tale. He plays a hitchhiker killed in a hit-and-run who stalks his killer as a ghost, increasingly worse for wear, until he's a rotting, inhuman ghoul. Curiously, he's presented as a homeless vagrant, a forgotten member of society on the bottom rung, whom nobody is going to care about. He must chase after his killer, an idle, adulterous rich woman.

In Tales from the Hood, one of the best horror offerings of the 90s, Wright is in the first segment as a city councilman framed and murdered by corrupt, drug-dealing cops. He reaches out to another character and commands him to bring the killers to his grave, where he can exact vengeance. He's a prominent city official, beloved in his neighborhood, pushing for reform, whose reputation is destroyed unjustly. After killing his murderers, he goes after the protagonist of the tale, a rookie cop who stood by and took no action when he was murdered.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Wheels of Steel

I'm not a hundred percent, but I think Saxon has a thing for motorcycles. Just a hunch.

If you see me riding by,
Do not stop me. Do not try.
Cause I'm a motorcycle man!
I get my kicks just when I can!

On Wheels of Steel, their first of three landmark albums that defined their sound (the others being Strong Arm of the Law and Denim and Leather), Saxon open up with the kickass "Motorcycle Man" (which begins with the revving of an engine and the sound of a racing motorcycle) and also have the melodic title track, plus a few other songs that suggest the freedom of the road ("Freeway Mad") and life as a biker ("Street Fighting Gang").

Wheels of Steel is the prototypical Saxon album. As part of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal Saxon play like a stripped-down Judas Priest: fast, driving, catchy, anthemic hard rock that pushes into heavy metal. Songs such as "Stand Up Be Counted" tap into adolescent angst and call for metalheads to rise up and take charge.

Down, down at the bottom
Ya gotta try to get yourselves up
Ya got nothing to lose when your there
There at the bottom

Saxon always had a blue-collar, relatable appeal, but they also know how to soar. "747 (Strangers in the Night)" is not a Frank Sinatra homage but about a near plane crash, and they play with a stunning sense of urgency and a near poetic sense of wonder and amazement. The main guitar riff packs a heavy crunch, but the lead is a fast, high counterpoint that complements the rest of the song and elevates it.

The band also include a ballad ("Suzie Hold On") and a proto-thrash piece ("Machine Gun"). They were playing faster and heavier than other groups at the time and weren't worried about looking pretty or cute. The NWBHM was still emerging. The likes of Iron Maiden and Def Leopard hadn't conquered the charts yet. With Wheels of Steel, Saxon helped show them the way.

When you're dyin', when you're dyin'
There ain't no use in cryin'
I'm gonna keep on livin' 'till the light
Shines down on you
Burnin' right in
Ya can't stop when you're winning
I'm gonna show my hand make history

Eight Men Out

In dramatizing the 1919 Black Sox Scandal, in which several players on the Chicago White Sox fixed the World Series with gamblers, John Sayle's Eight Men Out (1988) is, ironically, not really about baseball.

Sure, the movie contains a lot of footage on the diamond, of games being played, spectacular plays, and costly actions, but the real meat of the story is behind the scenes, in the locker room, in hotel rooms, in bars, in train cars on their way between Chicago and Cincinnati as players plot with gangsters to throw the Series, cynical baseball officials scheme to protect their profits, and all sorts of hangers-on and bottom feeders cling to anything that smells like money.

Baseball might be America's past time, but it hides deep-seated rot and is built on exploitation.

Eight Men Out covers the events of the scandal from the end of the regular season, with the Sox clinching the Pennant to the trial after the Series when eight members of the team are charged with conspiracy.

There's no main character. People come and go from the story as needed: Buck Weaver (John Cusack), the third baseman who knows about the fix but doesn't want to snitch; Shoeless Joe Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), said to be the one of the best players ever; Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), a pitcher near the end of his career; cheapskate owner Charles Comiskey (Clifton James); gambler Arnold Rothstein (Michael Lerner), who backs the fix; and more.

The fix is really a ramshackle operation. It's a last-minute affair that has poor planning, confusion about the scheme (throw a few games or the whole Series?), betrayals, and bruised egos. Some players throwing the game are so obvious about it, you're surprised people didn't catch on sooner (I can't help but think if games were televised back then, people would have). Payoffs that are supposed to be made are never made, and both sides tell themselves they can screw over the other side. "What are they going to do? Tell the cops?"

Why did the players do it? Comiskey ripped them off. They were the best team in baseball, but he underpaid them, gave them flat champagne as a bonus, and in Cicotte's case, ordered him benched to keep him from winning 30 games, so he didn't have to pay him a promised bonus. Meanwhile, he prances in front of a fawning media about how wonderful a team they are and treats his fellow elites with fine dining. He's a typical capitalist fat cat.

Cicotte knows his career is winding down and wants to provide for his family. Shoeless Joe loves playing more than anything, but he doesn't want to let down the boys. Guys like Chick Gandil (Michael Rooker) are cynical, deciding to cash out while they can. Lefty Williams (James Read) is on board until the payoffs don't happen but when gangsters threaten his wife...

Performances are excellent all around, and the period details are convincing. Eight Men Out came out around the time when a lot of baseball movies played on nostalgia and hope, movies like Bull Durham and Field of Dreams. Even a silly comedy like Major League showed a downtrodden team finally winning the big one.

Eight Men Out shows us the dark side of baseball, the perversion of the American Dream, and it is not pretty.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Brutal Planet

Alice Cooper turns his gaze on contemporary society and shows no mercy.

In interviews and other appearances, Alice Cooper comes off as a genial, down-to-earth if slightly kooky wicked uncle with a dark sense of humor. Before Brutal Planet, I knew him for his appearance in Wayne's World, playing himself as a soft-spoken intellectual, and his teen angst anthems "School's Out" and "No More Mr. Nice Guy."

When I first heard Brutal Planet, his first album of the new millennium, I discovered an important fact about Cooper: when he wants to, he can turn on the menace. On the second track, "Wicked Young Man," he sings from the point of view from a young Neo-Nazi.

I like to run my body on heavy heavy fuel.
I can punch through a wall. I can kick like a mule.
I got a pocketful of bullets and a blueprint of the school.
I'm the devil's little soldier. I'm the devil's little tool.

Ever the shock rocker, Cooper always played a devilish vaudevillian showman, a shady carnival barker showing you good time as he corrupts you. On Brutal Planet, he drops the showman act and reveals a nasty, cynical side. He's not laughing as he grosses us out; he's laying bare all our sins to show we're just as rotten as he is.

Everybody's mind is badly infected.
Everybody feeds the parasite.
Everything is dark so why not accept it?

Everything is far more black than white.

The music is heavier and louder, almost industrial heavy metal. It drives and attacks as Cooper lists all the problems that will destroy us: pollution, war, domestic violence, world hunger, racism, corruption, controlling technology. Cooper sounds angry and more fired up than he had in years with this album, and his fiery intensity is downright shocking.

Cooper includes his obligatory tender ballad for the ladies, "Take It Like a Woman," which could be a sister song to "Only Women Bleed."

Ya thought you had your Mr. Right
But he was really Mr. Hyde.
Ya gave him your most precious gift.
You were his bleeding bride.

He also gets despairing on "Pick Up the Bones," which starts slow with an acoustic intro and builds in intensity until he's lashing out at the cruelty of the world before ending the song on a somber note.

Now maybe someday
The sun's gonna shine.
Flowers will bloom
And all will be fine.
But nothing will grow
On this burnt cursive ground
Cuz the breathe of the death
Is the only sound.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Random Thought #8

Friends, the TV show, would have been infinitely improved if it got rid of Ross, Rachel, and Monica and focused on Chandler, Joey, and Phoebe.

Chandler is neurotic, but he has a sarcastic sense of humor; Joey is a lovable doofus, and Phoebe is a kooky free spirit. Those three are enough and are charming in their own ways. Plus, they're the least selfish of the main characters.

Monica started off OK, but over the course of the show, she became hard to tolerate, too controlling, too demanding, etc.

As for Ross and Rachel, I never cared for their will-they or won't-they relationship. The obsessive focus on it was a black hole from which the show never could escape.

I don't like Ross and Rachel. I never liked Ross and Rachel. I want them to die horribly in a fire.

Random Thought #7

When you're a fan of a famous artist, whether it be a director, musician, or whoever, are you sometimes drawn more to their lesser work than their masterpieces?

Take John Carpenter, for example. I love his work. I think he's one of the most important genre directors ever, and he's got the body of work to prove it: Halloween, The Thing, Big Trouble in Little China, They Live.

Yet, as much as I love those movies, I'm sometimes more interested in watching something like Village of the Damned or Memoirs of an Invisible Man. They are far from his best, but there's still a lot to talk about, and sometimes it's rewarding to poke and prod a movie that doesn't to work to figure why it doesn't.

I think part of it might also be overexposure of those better works. As great as Halloween, et. al are, what's left to be said about them that hasn't already been said? I wouldn't say I'm more bored with them, but all the surprise and discovery are gone.

Meanwhile, Village and Memoirs do have their fans, as few as they are, and I'm open to hearing new takes on those films that might make me appreciate them more or see them in a new light. 

Plus, unless the movie is truly awful - as in I hate myself for having watched it - there can be joy in watching bad movies and mining joy and humor for their failures. Making fun of bad movies is practically its own sport.

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Sabrina

My heart sank a little when I read the plot summary on the back of the DVD case for Sabrina (1954). More specifically, I became worried after I saw the descriptions for the characters played by Humphrey Bogart and William Holden:

Bogie as a boring workaholic? Holden as a shameless womanizer? I don't want Bogie to be boring, and I fully expected Holden to be insufferable.

Well, I should have known better. Bogie is still Bogie, even if he's playing a comparable stiff. He's full of zingers, and Holden, well, he's charming enough so we can see why he attracts all these women, even if he is wholly irresponsible.

Sabrina is the marriage between two classic story tropes: the Cinderella transformation and the love triangle. As an example of Classic Hollywood romance, it's funny and tender, without sacrificing either for the other.

Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) is the young daughter of the chauffeur to the wealthy Larrabee family. The Larrabees have two sons: Linus (Bogart), the serious one who runs the family business 24-7, and David (Holden), the playboy who has been married several times.

Sabrina loves David, who barely notices her, but he definitely notices her when she returns from school in Paris transformed from a shy, awkward girl into a glamorous, stylish woman. His immediate attraction to her endangers his upcoming marriage that would pave the way for a profitable merger between Larrabee industries and another company.

So, Linus decides he must break up the romance between Sabrina and David by making Sabrina fall in love with him. What he doesn't count on is falling in love with her himself, even though he can't admit it.

Directed by Billy Wilder, Sabrina works as a romance, a comedy, and a drama. It's a careful balancing act perched on the charms and charisma of its leads, which are undeniable. This kind of story could have descended into sentimental, goopy melodrama, but it's pulled off with aplomb.

Our leads, if they don't always feel like real people (is it possible for anyone to believe that even a shy Audrey Hepburn would escape notice from men?), are at least always engaging and interesting. They're not one-note stereotypes. Linus might be a workaholic, but he has a sense of humor and the vision that suits the CEO of a conglomerate. David might be divorced several times and impulsive, but he has a good heart.

As for Sabrina, she begins despondently pining over someone who doesn't acknowledge her. She finally gets his attention by becoming more confident. She was always beautiful, and now she knows it and knows how to use it.

Wilder also works in some sly bits around the main story, including the corporate merger based around an unbreakable new plastic. We see Sabrina's culinary schooling in Paris, and that has its laughs. There's also some priceless slapstick involving a set of wine glasses.