Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Eve's Bayou

What a great title: Eve's Bayou (1997). You get the Biblical connotations with Eve, and the bayou conjures image of a dense, tangled moss of wetlands and intrigue, a great setting for a story of labyrinth motivations and character revelations.

Written and directed by Kasi Lemmons (who had supporting performances in The Silence of the Lambs and Candyman), Eve's Bayou is a dark, Southern Gothic, coming-of-age melodrama set in the Louisiana bayou in the town of Eve's Bayou, a place where modernity lives alongside superstition and our protagonist, Eve Batiste (Jurnee Smollett), learns hard lessons about how adults aren't perfect and the world can be a cruel, illogical place.

"The summer I killed my father I was 10 years old," the grown Eve confides to us as the movie opens. The movie chronicles that fateful summer when Eve discovered her father, Louis  (Samuel L. Jackson), the town doctor who is very attentive to his young, attractive female patients if you catch my drift.

Eve catches her father with another woman, and this knowledge hangs over her through the entire movie. She's not old enough to know about sex or adultery, but she understands her father is doing something wrong that threatens to tear apart her family. She doesn't know what to do. Eventually, through her aunt Mozelle (Debbi Morgan), Eve learns about Voodoo.

The Voodoo of Eve's Bayou is deliberately ambiguous. It's hard to say whether it impacts the characters. Everything that happens could be read either way, via supernatural means or mundane explanations. Mozelle and Eve both have visions - figures walking through the mist, predictions of the future flashing before them, memories of the past reflected in a mirror - but are they really seeing ghostly phantasms or is the movie visualizing what they think they see?

It doesn't matter. The characters believe the magic is real, including Eve's mother Roz (Lynn Whitfield), who after a vision by Mozelle, orders her three children to remain indoors for the rest of the summer. Surely, locking three children, ages 8-14, in a hot house when tensions and temperature are high won't cause any strain or problems, right? Especially when Eve's older sister Cisely (Meagan Good) already blames their mom for driving their dad away?

Eve's Bayou is dark and tortured, but it's not a horror film. The Voodoo elements are a background to the character drama, although that doesn't stop Lemmons from giving the film other-worldly touches. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Mozelle describes how her lover shot her husband, and we see the men reflected in the mirror as she tells the story to Eve; when she gets to her part, she steps out of frame before re-appearing in the mirror as part of the action.

The past lives on, breathing alongside the present.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Due to the Dead

It shouldn't feel strange to put together the words "George Romero" and "dead." After all, film lovers, gore hounds, and zombie fiends have been doing that for almost fifty years now, since the release of his groundbreaking horror classic Night of the Living Dead

Yet, it does feel strange. George Romero is dead, having passed away on July 16 after a battle with cancer. Unlike his famous cinematic creations, he won't be coming back.

I'm not going to go into his legacy or what he did for the movie industry and the horror genre. Plenty of other people have done so, and I can't add much to it. More successful and talented people who knew Romero, such as Edgar Wright and Guillermo del Toro, have said their piece, and while I never met the man, I've followed his career for the better part of the last fifteen years, as long as I've been serious about movies and moviemaking. I can only describe what he meant to me.

In some ways, I'm an atypical George Romero fan. Growing up, I always loved movies but not horror. I avoided scary movies, especially zombie movies, because they freaked me out so much. Two titles in particular affected me: Night of the Living Dead and The Return of the Living Dead. The former felt like a waking nightmare; the latter, which I didn't realize at the time was a comedy, bothered me because these zombies couldn't be killed.

So I avoided horror for years, and pretending to be a zombie or threatening to change the TV channel to one of those movies was an easy way for family members, especially my older brother, to scare me.

Gradually, I overcame that fear, sneaking in clips of movies on TV, daring myself to be braver. The turning point came in seventh grade when I did a project on Mel Brooks. Weird transition, I know, but I discussed this in my Day of the Dead review. My mom bought this massive, red book on the history of Hollywood for me to use as research and to cut out pictures from.

The book contained a section on 80s horror by Mark Kermode, the British film critic. He talked about Evil Dead, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Fly, etc. He also devoted a couple of paragraphs to Day of the Dead, Romero's third zombie movie and at the time his conclusion to the series. I don't have the book anymore, but a few choice phrases stuck with me: "Romero's multi-layered script" and "supremely intelligent festival of gore."

The writeup hit me like a lightning bolt. A horror movie, a zombie movie, intelligent? Multi-layered? It didn't seem possible. I was baffled but intrigued. Also, I knew of Night of the Living Dead but had no clue there were any sequels. What was the name of the middle chapter? What was that story?

Sometime later, I found Night on TV and watched it, with eyes more open and mind more receptive. I appreciated it more. I also read the info box on screen that made note to mention "Directed by George Romero." Not every movie's director was listed by the cable company unless they were at the level of a Steven Spielberg or a Stanley Kubrick. This Romero must be up there with those guys, I thought, and my thought was confirmed, to me anyway, when shortly afterward, I saw his episode of The Directors, a TV series that showcased the great directors.

Romero came off as friendly, articulate, insightful, and he seemed like a great guy to root for. More importantly, I learned about all these other movies he made that I could now seek out and watch, which I did.

The timing was good. This was around the time I became interested in filmmaking, the craft, the greats, the process. Romero - and John Carpenter - was my window into that, seeing how he imbued his movies with intelligence, wit, style, and substance. A few years later, he finally received funding to continue his series and made Land of the Dead.

Romero was the first director I actively followed. True, I did the project on Mel Brooks and knew about Steven Spielberg but didn't really pay attention to their current output. I collected all the news on Romero, reading every interview I could find, visiting a million websites, tracking all the announcements about his next projects (Diamond Dead! The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon! From a Buick 8!), and eagerly anticipated whatever he had planned next.

Sadly, a lot of those next projects became never projects, falling through for one reason or another. Despite his impact and success, Hollywood never totally embraced Romero, forcing him to scrape by on lower-budget fare and churning out more and more zombie movies, even when it became clear he wanted to move on. I probably like Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead more than most horror fans, but I admit they are, compared to the rest of his work, weak. When those movies were announced, I was disappointed he was going back to the zombie well.

I've spent more time than I should have reading up on all those films he almost directed: Before I Wake, Resident Evil, The Stand, The Mummy (I even bought a copy of his script), Apartment Living, Carnivore. I could go on. It's depressing to read up about all the work one of your favorite directors wanted to do but couldn't.

Romero, like Rod Serling, used the trappings of the genre to tell interesting stories that had something to say about society. His movies dealt with racism, feminism, consumerism, class warfare, family conflict, government overreach, identity. He gazed hard upon the dark nature of humanity and brought it out in a palatable and entertaining vehicle. He - along with collaborators such special effects makeup wizard Tom Savini - created some of cinema's most memorable, shocking, and visceral images.

He's very much the kind of storyteller I want to be. I hesitate to call him my favorite director because those superlatives are hard to quantify, and I admit there are better filmmakers who have been more innovative and consistent in quality, many of whom I'd count among my favorites, too.

But Romero, I relate to him more than the others. I see more of me in him, or at least more of the traits I value and wish I had: independent, socially conscious, always trying to find greater meaning and value where most people wouldn't think to look, daring, exploring new terrains, a sense of humor. He made many movies I enjoy and will enjoy.

Thank you, George. I will stay scared.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sabotage

The cracks in the ship's hull have appeared.

Sabotage is the last great album in a streak by Black Sabbath's original lineup going back to their debut album. It's heavy as hell and filled with daring musical ideas that showed they were still in progressing their sound. But their subject matter suggests some discord in the camp, and while they funneled that tension into great music here, it eventually tore them apart.

The album opens strong with the apocalyptic yet environmentally conscious "Hole in the Sky." It's heavy, it has a monster riff, and it's one of Sabbath's best. After a brief acoustic interlude, Sabbath, having already forged heavy metal, invent thrash metal with "Symptom of the Universe, and listening to it today, one can hear its influence on everyone from Diamond Head to Metallica to Iron Maiden with its speed, aggression, and multiple parts and time changes.

"Symptom," along with "The Writ," are sometimes considered the anti-Led Zeppelin songs. Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" famously begins slow and quiet, building in intensity and speed, and by the end, it's blazing. Sabbath perform the opposite: starting heavy and angry before easing into a gentle, acoustic exit that peacefully soars out. Anyone who ever doubted Sabbath's technical chops should give these tracks a listen.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath found the band incorporating a variety of instruments, from flutes and pianos to synthesizers. Here, the band experiments with different song structures. Except for "Hole in the Sky," they avoid the typical verse-chorus-verse-chorus-solo arrangement. The moody "Megalomania" is nearly 10 minutes long but sure doesn't feel like it, and "The Writ" is nearly eight minutes.

"Am I Going Insane (Radio)" does the unthinkable: there's no guitar on it. It's entirely synth-driven. Meanwhile, "Supertzar" is built around a wordless vocal riff that sounds like Hell's gospel choir.

From the subject matter perspective, Sabotage finds Black Sabbath in a dark place. Not dark as in gothic or creepy like their previous works, but dark in the sense the band is finding itself on unstable ground. By 1975, they had achieved massive success, and now they had to cope with it.

The anxieties of success are felt, especially on "The Writ," in which they lash out at a former manager who ripped them off, and "Megalomania" finds them singing about how they feel the "dream of my soul" is poisoned, "fantasies have taken complete control," and "why doesn't everybody leave me alone now."

It's obvious trouble was brewing within the band at this point, and drug use was starting to get out of hand. At least on Sabotage, they showed they still had some creative life left.

Favorite Tracks
"Hole in the Sky" - A heavy, rocking opener.
"Symptom of the Universe" - Sabbath gives birth to thrash.
"The Writ" - Dark, cynical, and elaborate.

Favorite Moment
In "Symptom of the Universe," Tony Iommi's electric solo erupts with a vengeance and just as easily slides into the mellow acoustic outro.

Album Cover
The band, their backs to a mirror, is matched by reflected doppelgangers. Eerie, perhaps indicating potential self-sabotage.

Track Order
1) Hole in the Sky
2) Don't Start (Too Late)
3) Symptom of the Universe
4) Megalomania
5) The Thrill of it All
6) Supertzar
7) Am I Going Insane (Radio)
8) The Writ

Personnel
Ozzy Osbourne – Vocals
Tony Iommi – Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer, Organ, Harp
Terry "Geezer" Butler – Bass
Bill Ward – Drums, Percussion

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

We Need to Talk About Kevin

Director Lynne Ramsay touched on parent-child relationships in Ratcatcher and a number of her shorts, but while the adults and children had their foibles and flaws, you can't say any were all good or all bad. We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) gives us a character without redeeming qualities. He is pure evil, and he happens to be our main character's son, Kevin.

Going into We Need to Talk About Kevin, I expected something more slickly commercial and straightforward from Ramsay, better known for her gritty style. She's working with established stars in Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly and a higher budget, and I expected something along the lines of The Good Son or The Bad Seed.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is more polished from a technical standpoint, but it is not commercial or straightforward. The conventional narrative would have been to gradually build toward whatever evil plan Kevin (Ezra Miller as a teenager, a couple of child actors when he's younger) attempts and his mother Eva (Swinton) gradually realizing her son's true nature and trying to stop him.

That's not what we get. The film jumps around its timeline, beginning after Kevin has already done that bad thing (which I won't spoil but it resonates in modern America) with Eva, a pariah in the community for having birthed this monster, trying to rebuild her life. The film flashes back to the boy's birth and other incidents that illustrate how weird and malicious he is while Eva's husband (Reilly) refuses to see the truth about their son.

Ramsay's style is abstract, distorted, and surreal. Events from the past and present overlap, memories intertwine with present actions, and the effect is jarring, almost like we're looking at the pieces of an emotional and mental that come together perfectly as the movie progresses. It's never confusing and I was never lost; as the movie unfolds and we sift through everything, what happens becomes evident.

Evil might be too simplistic of a description for Kevin, although his actions certainly qualify. Cold, emotionless, and with nothing but contempt for his mother might be the better characteristics. The movie offers no explanation for why he's this way.

Seemingly from birth, he acts only to make her miserable by emotionally manipulating her and psychologically blackmailing her. While he commits a number of violent and depraved actions, that material occurs mostly off-screen or is suggested, which is somehow more effective than if we had seen them.

Make no mistake: We Need to Talk About Kevin is creepy and disturbing, but it's fascinating to watch unfold. It's not a traditional thriller that builds to a plot resolution. It pulls the viewer into a disturbing web and creates something unsettling.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

1916

Motörhead stretch their creative wings and play ... ballads?!

1916 (1991) contains many of the aggressive, driving, rock-n-roll influenced heavy metal tracks we expect from Motörhead, songs like "The One to Sing the Blues," "I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care)," "Make My Day," "No Voices in the Sky," and "Going to Brazil." They blaze and fire, and when you hear them, you just want to bang your head, flip off your teacher, and punch someone.

"Eye for Eye, tooth for tooth, you all know what I mean.
What's the use of a cry for help if no one hears you scream?
No one hears you scream."

But Motörhead includes slower songs on 1916, songs about love ("Love Me Forever") and dark, atmospheric songs that are more eerie than rocking ("Nightmare/The Dreamtime"). The latter wouldn't be out of place on a Black Sabbath album (or maybe it could serve as the intro for a Megadeth song), but "Love Me Forever" is undoubtedly a power ballad. Not even Motörhead was immune from the trends of the 80s, but I can award points for waiting until the rise of grunge to do it. Not caring if a trend was dead before hopping on the bandwagon is the kind of no-shits Lemmy would give.

Even "Angel City," which has the hallmarks of a traditional Motörhead  rock tune, sounds more like a boogie from a bar band than the group that helped pioneer speed metal. It's only missing a backing piano and a horn section.

The closing song, the title track, contains no guitars or bass, just a simple, marching drumbeat accompanied by a cello as Lemmy sadly sings about young soldiers dying in the trenches. For a band that staked its reputation on swagger, noise, and controlled chaos, it's a somber, sensitive piece. It's genuinely sad.

"I heard my friend cry,
And he sank to his knees, coughing blood
As he screamed for his mother
And I fell by his side,
And that's how we died,
Clinging like kids to each other."

I'm not criticizing 1916, just describing it. It's an odd entry in the band's canon, but they play as well as ever. A few catchy, hard-driving tracks that don't overstay their welcome now mixed with a few deviations of the formula. It's not my go-to Motörhead album, but every time I listen to it, I'm glad I do.

Favorite Songs
"No Voices in the Sky" - Fast, aggressive, loud, and full of venom. Even Beavis and Butthead couldn't mock it.
"R.A.M.O.N.E.S." - A tribute to the legendary punk act that sounds like a Ramones song.

Favorite Moments
The pre-chorus and chorus of "No Voices in the Sky." It's where things go crazy.

Album Cover
The band's mascot Snaggletooth on a battlefield surrounded by flags of the nations that participated in World War I. Pretty cool.

Track Order
1) The One to Sing the Blues
2) I'm So Bad (Baby I Don't Care)
3) No Voices in the Sky
4) Going to Brazil
5) Nightmare/The Dreamtime
6) Love Me Forever
7) Angel City
8) Make My Day
9) R.A.M.O.N.E.S.
10) Shut You Down
11) 1916

Personnel
Lemmy Kilmister – Lead Vocals and Bass
Phil "Wizzö" Campbell – Guitar
Michael "Würzel" Burston – Guitar
Phil "Philthy Animal" Taylor – Drums

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

A musician friend of mine (a guitarist in the Cleveland-based band Ottawa) told me this is his favorite Black Sabbath album.

While it's not my favorite (that honor belongs to Master of Reality), Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is undoubtedly Sabbath's most accomplished work, finding the boys pushing their sound to the limits of heavy metal and experimenting with new instrumental and production techniques. Simply put, it's the band's most sophisticated and ambitious album.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath opens with its title track, the riff that's been credited with saving the band. Suffering from writer's block and creative exhaustion, the group rented space in a reportedly haunted castle for inspiration, and as a result, Tony Iommi gives us one of his most complex and darkest songs. It is progressive heavy metal, filled with aggressive driving riffs, chugging refrains, acoustic interludes, foreboding atmosphere, and several tempo chances while Ozzy Osbourne gives one of his best performances.

"Where can you run to?
What more can you do?
No more tomorrow.
Life is killing you.
Dreams turn to nightmares
Heaven turns to Hell."

The opening song is an angry track from the lords of gloom and doom, but they vary the emotions elsewhere. "A National Acrobat" slows down with an almost funky bass and "Spiral Architect" builds to its climax with a backing string section, but the abstract imagery of their lyrics (about conception and DNA respectively) and their progressive styles wouldn't be out of place on Vol. 4.

"Fluff" is a tender, beautiful piano-driven instrumental. Meanwhile, "Sabbra Cadabra" plays like a heavy jazz piece, full of swing and bounce (plus Rick Wakeman of Yes on keyboards!). Its keyboards are downright boogie, and the lyrics could fit on a pop song.

"Feel so good, I feel so fine.
Lovely little lady always on my mind
She gives me lovin' every night and day.
Never gonna leave her. Never going away."

For the early part of its run, Sabbath was a meat-and-potatoes heavy metal band: four guys, a guitar, a bass, and drums. Sure, "Changes" had a piano on it, but that was an outlier. Their production was raw (behind-the-scenes stories reveal they recorded  those early albums in a couple of days or less), but here, the instrumentation is heavily layered and filled with multiple, overlapping parts, giving the album a rich, rounded sound.

Sabbath uses instruments not normally used for the genre, including the piano on "Fluff," the keyboard on "Sabbra Cadabra," the synthesizers on "Who Are You?" the flute on "Looking for Today," and the strings "Spiral Architect." They even mix acoustic guitars with the distorted electrics, creating a nice texture. Impressively, these unorthodox choices don't feel out of place.

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is firmly entrenched in heavily metal, but the boys show just how varied in effect the genre can be. The album still sounds like Black Sabbath, even as they chart new territory.

Standout Tracks
"Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" - A monster opening that's both heavy and complex.
"A National Acrobat" - Heavy and moody but dreamy.
"Sabbra Cadabra" - Sabbath rocks and swings.

Favorite Moment
The breakdown of "Sabbath Bloody Sabbath" (4 minutes and 40 seconds into the song). It's one of my favorite licks by Iommi.

Album Cover
Naked demons, a rat, and a snake ravish a man on a Satanic bed in reddish tint color. Perhaps the band's most evil album cover.

Song Order
1) Sabbath Bloody Sabbath
2) A National Acrobat
3) Fluff
4) Sabbra Cadabra
5) Killing Yourself to Live
6) Who are You?
7) Looking for Today
8) Spiral Architect

Personnel
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Tony Iommi  - Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer, Harpsichord, Organ, Flute, Handclaps, Bagpipes
Geezer Butler - Bass, Synthesizer, Mellotron, Handclaps, Nose Flute
Bill Ward - Drums, Bongos, Timpani, Handclaps 
And a guest spot by Rick Wakeman

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Gasman

Talk about awkward family get-togethers. In Gasman (1998), Lynne and her brother Stephen walk with their father to a company Christmas party at a pub. Along the way, their father talks with a woman and brings along two other children, about the same age as Lynne and Stephen.

Anyone older than 12 can probably guess long before Lynne and Stephen that those two other kids are also their father's children. Such is the innocence of childhood. Children can be wonderful viewpoints in stories: they see everything but they don't grasp everything or they're not told everything by the adults around them, so their perspectives are skewed.

It's not a surprise when Lynne gets jealous at the other girl sits on her daddy's lap (but she really gets mad when the girl says that's her daddy, too). The adults are the ones with the curious behavior. We don't know if Lynne's mother knows that her husband supports another woman and two other children, and the other woman apparently is OK with being "the other woman" as long as he brings money and takes the kids along occasionally. The father's behavior is both cowardly and expected: say nothing on the arrangement, act like nothing is wrong, and hope the kids get along.

It's a lot of drama and complexity for a 15-minute short, and director Lynne Ramsay films it with unsentimental grittiness. As with her other work, she keeps the camera close and intimate with her characters, except for the long shots of the father and his two sets of children walking along the railroad track.

This is not a warm, happy family. In trying to keep everything, the father has only succeed in driving his children away.