Sunday, November 29, 2015

On the Road with the Ramones

Groups such as the Stooges and the New York Dolls are considered forerunners to the punk genre, but The Ramones are often considered the first band to be identified with the label. They formed in New York in 1974, toured and produced music nonstop for twenty-two years, and then called it quits without ever having a hit record or achieving mainstream success, but they maintained a strong cult following, and today, they're regarded as an important and influential rock act.

The group's tour manager was Monte Melnick. He was there for their entire run, and it is Melnick, along with Frank Meyer, who penned On the Road with the Ramones. The book covers the formation of the group, the personalities and backgrounds of its members, their hectic touring schedule, their early days in the New York scene, their later years and breakup, and the aftermath of the band's dissolution, ending with the deaths of three founding members: Joey, Dee Dee, and Johnny (since the book's publication in 2003, original member Tommy Ramone also passed away).

The book progresses more or less chronologically. Each chapter begins with a one-page introduction before proceeding as an oral history chronicling the band's history. Just about anyone involved with The Ramones in any capacity - band members, road crew, fans, wives and girlfriends, agents, and other musicians such as Cheetah Chrome of The Dead Boys and Joan Jett - contributes their thoughts. For those looking for insight from Joey and Johnny and all the rest, this is the book to check out. The only notable voice missing is Richie Ramone, although considering his exit from the group was acrimonious (and is covered in the book), it's understandable he didn't want to be involved.

Reading the book, I find The Ramones defined by contradiction. They were a rebellious, teen-friendly rock group that influenced countless groups but never found big success themselves. They wanted success but didn't change to achieve it. Their style combined heavily distorted, buzz saw aggression with catchy, pop sensibilities. Johnny, the driving force of the band, was a driven, disciplined conservative who led the group with military efficiency, but Joey, the front man, suffered from OCD (he would drive back through traffic to hotels and airports to touch knobs and walk through doors) and eventually started doing heroin, and Dee Dee was a bi-polar party animal and drug addict who possibly had multiple personality disorder.

The Ramones perfected a stage show that was always high quality and professional, but the members were frequently at odds with each other and fighting. Most significantly, Johnny married an ex-girlfriend of Joey's, and Joey never forgave him. The two hardly ever spoke to each other after that. Throw in the usual insanity of being rock stars, and the result is somewhere between a music tour, Hell's Angels riding into town, frat boys on vacation, and a three-ring circus.

On the Road With The Ramones gives us the story of The Ramones in their own words, and it doesn't try to clean things up or tell a neat story to keep everyone in a positive light. We hear multiple accounts of the same incident, and the players don't always agree. Some people in the book accuse Johnny of being a member of the Ku Klux Klan and state the song "The KKK Took My Baby Away" was about him taking Joey's girlfriend. Johnny, for his part, admits he kept a white supremacist card in his wallet because he found it funny, but other people deny the song is about him.

Everyone who was a member gets space devoted to him and what they brought to the band, good and bad. Despite the uniform look of the members (black leather jackets and jeans, adopting the same surname), they were all distinct individuals and personalities. Some were good fits for the band, others weren't, but the book tries to play fair and never picks on any of them. Melnick is described many times as having been a babysitter and punching bag for the group, and while he presents life on tour as a non-stop wild and crazy ride filled with setbacks and frustrations, he never appears to have an ax to grind. It was a significant part of his life, and he remembers it fondly.

On the Road With The Ramones is packed with behind-the-scenes photos, passes, posters, fliers, and other images. It's also filled with its share of stories that sound like they belong in This is Spinal Tap. It's a fascinating inside account of one of rock's most consistent and iconic bands.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Shocker

In past reviews, I've referred to Shocker (1989) as one of Wes Craven's duds. The first time I saw it, I hated it, thinking it too transparent and cynical of an attempt to replicate Freddy Kruger. I went into it expecting a hardcore, intense  thriller but saw a tonally inconsistent movie that couldn't decide what it wanted to be about.

Still, Shocker is a movie I've thought about many times, and I remembered some of its sequences and visuals fondly. With Craven's recent passing, I decided to revisit the film. While many flaws remain, Shocker has just enough inspiration to make it worth checking out. Rather than a serious horror movie, Shocker works best as a zany, violent satire.

Shocker's boogeyman, Horace Pinker (Mitch Pileggi), is to television what Kruger is to the dream world. Instead of killing people in their dreams, Pinker invades their homes through TV sets. Just before he went to the electric chair, Pinker conducted a black magic ritual in his jail cell where he prayed to a television set. TV as the Devil? Not exactly subtle subtext, but a fun idea Craven exploits well. Television, filled with depictions of violence and mindless entertainment, deadens viewers, numbing them to the real world and leaving them vulnerable to Pinker. 

Unfortunately, that part only occurs in the last act. It's nearly forty minutes before Pinker winds up in the electric chair, and then, the movie becomes a precursor to Fallen as Pinker hops from body from body to get revenge against the college student, Jonathan Parker (Peter Berg), who caught him. It's kind of amusing as Pinker possesses people, from a bulky construction worker (played by Alice Cooper guitarist Kane Roberts) to a cute little girl, but this part goes on too long, and I don't know how it gels with Pinker's electrical abilities. Later, Pinker occupies an electric armchair, and it's like seeing Chairry from Pee-Wee's Playhouse on the rampage.

Pinker, despite a crazed and enjoyably over-the-top performance from Pileggi, is not scary. Kruger, despite becoming watered down and goofy as his series wore on, started out as a terrifying figure, and Craven wisely kept him in the shadows and his jokes to a minimum. By contrast, Pinker is out in the open and shown in color while saying things like "Let's take a ride on my volts wagon." He's not a badly burned boogeyman; he's Mr. Clean in an orange jumpsuit.

Craven throws in too many supernatural elements without bothering to explain them. I can accept a serial killer traveling through television because he made a deal with the devil, but the other stuff - Jonathan's ability to track Pinker through his dreams, the ghost of his girlfriend (Cami Cooper) coming to his aid, and the girlfriend's charm necklace repelling Pinker - feels hokey.

While Craven the writer is shaky, Craven the director is in top form and creates some memorable images. The film opens in Pinker's junky repair shop with dozens of TVs broadcasting death and destruction, and it's an ominous atmosphere on par with Freddy's boiler room lair. The special effects, most notably Pinker's blue, distorted image, like a distorted TV reception, are well done, and the final sequence - when Jonathan and Pinker chase each other across several TV channels - is an outstanding climax. It's also a nice touch that the hero is a football star, a jock, rather than the expected of virginal final girl the genre usually delivered at the time.

The film is more comedic than A Nightmare on Elm Street. Timothy Leary has a cameo as a televangelist, and during the final chase, Pinker and Jonathan wind up in a living room where a woman in hair curlers says "I've heard of interactive programming, but this is ridiculous." And keep your eyes open for Ted Raimi, proving once again that growing up as Sam Raimi's brother prepared him to be a good sport.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why I Don't Plan to Monetize this Blog

The dream of any writer is to be paid for what he or she writes. Sure, fame and critical acclaim are nice, even goals to strive for, but to be able to make a living off your skill as a wordsmith is the true litmus test. It's a sign of success and worth, or at least, it gives you a sense of gratification because a lot of people believe what you write has merit if they're willing to pay for it.

Many blogs and websites, many of them very good, generate ad revenue, and I certainly don't begrudge them for doing so. I've considered it. Google Blogger, the engine I use, has the option to monetize, and it seems like it would be relatively easy to set up. So why haven't I made the plunge? There are a few reasons.

First, Blogger tracks my readership. While a few entries have page views in the thousands, most of my posts, especially in recent years, hover under 100. Knowing what I know about online advertising and just how many page clicks it would take to generate a significant amount of money, I don't see that happening on Dubo's Den. I don't see a reason to bombard my readers with ads just to get a few extra pennies.

Second, I don't really need that extra money. Sure, it'd be nice, but as I explained in my previous post, I have a nice, steady, well paying job. I started the blog shortly after college mainly to keep my writing sharp, and I maintain it as a hobby. I enjoy it. It's an investment of my time and effort, but it's rewarding by itself without a monetary aspect.

Third, advertising is everywhere, especially on the Internet. Wherever you look - in newspapers, on television, on Facebook - someone is trying to sell you something. Personally, I'm annoyed with it, and I'd like to consider my blog a haven from attempts to fleece people for money.

Last, these are some of the products I've seen advertised on my Facebook page: tampons, ladies Depends, vasectomies, reverse vasectomies. The reverse vasectomy ad came the day after the vasectomy ad; how easily swayed does Mark Zuckerberg think I am? Despite all the advances in advertising logarithms based on your browsing history, your likes and interests, and other factors, this kind of micro advertising is still not as accurate as it's touted to be, at least in my case. In the nearly ten years I've been on Facebook, I never clicked on one of their ads, and if I ever did, it was by accident. I have no interest to purchase anything being advertised to me online.

Will I ever sell out and start trying to make money off Dubo's Den? I'd like to promise I never will, but I can't. I have no immediate plans to do so or any long-term plans for that matter, but that's a great thing about the future; it's unknown. Maybe I'll change my mind if my readership skyrockets to the point the price becomes too high to refuse or maybe I'll find myself in financial straits and will accept any income I can. For now, this blog is free, and I want to keep it that way.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

New Job, New Chapter

I graduated college in 2010. That feels like a lifetime ago. The last five years were filled with ups and downs, new friends, some losses, and altogether new experiences for me. The one constant in that time was my job: reporter.

Even before I finished school, I began my career as a professional journalist, getting paid by the story to cover Delaware City Council meetings and collect the sheriff and police reports. After graduation, I moved back to Northeast Ohio for a time before returning to Central Ohio where I was hired as a full-time reporter for Suburban News Publications. Even after the company was bought out by the Columbus Dispatch and I was laid off, I remained in the area and worked as a freelance reporter for a couple of different publications before being rehired full time as an editorial assistant. I still reported, but I also processed press releases, announcements, and other news briefs.

I remained in place for three years. In June, my company was sold again, and I grew worried about my future. My last experience with a buyout and merger left me snake bitten, and every day, I expected to receive a notice that my position would be eliminated. But I was lucky; it never came to that. I jumped ship to the dark side.

About a month ago, I started a new job as communications manager for a local library district. The overlap between careers is great. I'm still writing and working to get what I write out to the public. I'm still taking pictures, and I'm throwing in some editing and design work, acting as a sort of one-man band by assembling calendars, newsletters, press releases, and other documents. I'm also managing more business side operations, filling out requisitions and working with printers to get our documents produced. It's a lot of work, but at least I don't have to worry about weekly deadlines. I also have my own office, a first.

There's a joke among reporters that taking a public relations job like this is the journalist retirement plan. There is some truth to it. The job is less stressful, and it pays better. Getting out of journalism, I feel like I've done a tour of duty in the trenches, proving my worth and honing my skills. And with the uncertainty surrounding the future of the industry, the timing was pitch perfect. My hours are stable, my commute is shorter and less congested with traffic, and I don't have to work weekends or evenings anymore. I feel, for lack of a better word, safe.

Still, part of me misses the grunt work of reporting. I've traded independence for security. Instead of acting as a watchdog and informing the public of its leaders' actions or sharing important and/or interesting community news, I'm working for entity the watchdogs watch. As a reporter, my first responsibility was to seek the truth and report it. As a communications manager (or community relations coordinator, or public affairs director), my job is to get the library's story out there, to expose our brand to the public and make them want to come to the library and use its programs. Instead of fielding press releases and deciding which of them make the best stories, I'm writing press releases and hoping they'll get used as stories. It's a new mindset, one I'm still adjusting to.

I'm enjoying the new job so far. The people at the library are nice and welcoming, and the library is a service that is evolving to meet the needs of its customers, something I can't always say about the newspaper industry. It's an exciting time for me but a little nerve-wracking. The experience I gained as a journalist was invaluable, and I made a lot of friends with the people I worked with, friends whose job security I'm concerned for. I learned a lot about politics, government, economic development, law enforcement, business, education, and people in general. I made mistakes for all the readers to see, and I was publicly criticized for some of the stuff I wrote. There were some bad times, and it wasn't always the romantic profession of Woodward and Bernstein. It could be frustrating, painful, confusing, and tedious, but it helped shaped who I am.

I wouldn't have changed it for the world.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Dracula 3D

Among its laundry list of problems, Dario Agento's Dracula 3D's (2012) biggest drawback is it doesn't have a clear grasp of what it wants its Dracula to be. Depending on the film and the actor, Dracula can be a cadaverous monster, a romantic seducer, an Old World nobleman, a fallen Christian warrior, a tortured creature, and any number of possibilities and combinations. No one ever confuses Bela Lugosi's portrayal with Christopher Lee's or Lee's with Gary Oldman's and so on and so on. There's no one "correct" presentation of Dracula; everyone can have their own favorite, but I only ask that, whatever the concept in a given movie, Dracula be interesting.

Played in Argento's film by Thomas Kretschmann, Dracula is - I hate to use the word - boring. I can't think of any other way to describe him. He speaks flatly, his movements are stiff, and there is so sense that he is a cunning predator or a suave gentleman. He doesn't have a distinctive look or presence, and that's fatal to any movie about Dracula. True, he gorily murders some people, ripping out throats and cutting off heads, and he tries to convince Mina Harker she's the reincarnation of his lost love, but there's no passion or energy; it feels perfunctory.

Perfunctory, a word I never imagined using to describe a Dario Argento movie, but there you have it. No one watches an Argento film for the plot or acting. His movies (Suspiria, Inferno, Opera) were always style over substance, but what glorious, confident style. His films dripped with atmosphere, surreal nightmares captured on film. Yes, they're filled with blood and gore, but the movies were stunningly beautiful, the colors so vivid, the compositions so striking and offbeat, and the camera movement so fluid and hypnotic. Take all that away, and you're left with a poorly acted, clumsily plotted, horribly dubbed mess of like Dracula 3D.

Over at rogerebert.com, Peter Sobczynski runs down everything wrong with the movie - weak performances, bad CGI (the scene where Drac transforms into a giant preying mantis has to be seen to be believed) - but most potently, he notes that Argento seems to be going through the motions, apparently uninterested in telling this particular story. Watching the movie, one can't help but think Sobczynski hit the nail on the head; nothing in the film indicates Argento had any special desire to make this movie.

If Kretschmann (who Sobcyznski called the least frightening Dracula since Leslie Neilson) is stiff and flat, Argento's direction is languid and pedestrian. The period details are nice, but much of the movie looks cheaply over lit, eliminating shadows and sense of menace. I once heard this type of direction referred to as "directing traffic:" people enter and exit, move along, nothing to see. Moments that might have had some oomph, like Dracula flying in through a window and materializing out of flies, are undercut by terrible special effects. When Dracula attacks people, Argento speeds up the frame to suggest his supernatural power, but it looks hokey.

Dracula 3D has its share of blood, gore, sex, and nudity. These elements briefly give the movie some life, but I think we expect more from Argento. Rutger Hauer has some fun as Van Helsing, but he's limited to a third-act appearance. It's always nice to see Asia Argento, but she's given little to do as Lucy, and while she does get naked, if you're like me, it'll weird you out because her father is the director. How awkward was filming those scenes?

Friday, November 6, 2015

Djinn

Djinn (2013), filmed in 2011 but without any sort of release here in the States until 2015, arrives with a lot of hype and baggage. Touted as the first horror movie produced in the United Arab Emirates, the movie stars predominantly Arab actors, centers on characters who are Muslim, and focuses on a creature from Middle Eastern folklore. It's also directed by Tobe Hooper, the famed director of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Poltergeist.

The film generated some controversy between its completion and release. Rumor had it someone in the UAE royal family disapproved of the film for being subversive and tried to have it buried. I don't know if that's true, but the film was delayed and there were reports of re-shoots and other behind-the-scenes drama, such as a crew member quitting production because of a lack of local influence on the project. The film did get some play time at festivals, but the reviews weren't kind. Variety called it "execrable," and Indie Wire asked in its headline why Djinn was "such a terrible film."

Contrarily, I kind of liked it. Don't get me wrong. There's a lot to criticize, namely the stilted dialogue that over-explains everything in the clunkiest of manners and some weird pacing and editing issues, but once he gets to the horror elements, most notably the sustained climax, Hooper pulls out all the stops and demonstrates he still has some of the talent we thought he lost after the likes of Spontaneous Combustion, The Mangler, and Mortuary. With better focus on the writing and the performances, Djinn probably could have done better, but as it is, the film works best when Hooper jettisons the plot and focuses on just presenting nightmarish visuals and style.

Djinn is about a young couple, Salama (Razane Jammal) and Khalid (Khalid Laith), grieving the loss of their infant. When Khalid gets a job offer back in their home country of UAE, they leave New York and move into an apartment built on the site of an ancient fishing village which was said to be inhabited by Djinn, ancient creatures that can shapeshift and torment people. Before long (not even a day), Salama begins having strange experiences in their new home while Khalid discovers he has more of a connection to the legend of the land than he realized.

Hooper is a strange choice to handle this material. Hooper's films have covered Americana elements: rural, backwater, suburbs, small towns. He's very much an American filmmaker whose work normally draws on the zeitgeist and social norms of U.S. society while his style of horror is usually about turning normalcy upside down and tearing it asunder into chaos and anarchy. The sociological interest of Djinn feels like something Wes Craven would be drawn to, and the lurid, fantasy elements are more befitting the likes of a Dario Argento. Personally, I would have gone with a director from the UAE.

Still, there are elements of Djinn that will be familiar to followers of Hooper's filmography. The apartment building with its mysterious halls and spooky neighbors is reminiscent of the complex where Angela Bettis was terrorized by a masked killer in Toolbox Murders, and the M.O. of the Djinn are not that dissimilar from the unruly spirits of Poltergeist. These demon-like beings like to jump out and scare people, manipulate electrical devices, and lure people out with weird noises. Even the revelation of Khalid's lineage and the true fate of the couple's baby play on a theme Hooper has long dwelt on: family bloodlines and dysfunction creating monsters.

Most notably absent is Hooper's trademark black humor. I suppose it's for the best given the material and cultural considerations, although one moment of dozens of birds flying into windows and going splat is kind of funny (would have worked better with better CGI though). In recent years, that dark humor often led to irritating characters played by overacting performers. Here, the characters are pretty bland and kind of weird, and while most performances are weak, they didn't get on my nerves.

About that weirdness. I don't know how to describe it other than much of it seems to be a result of shoddy writing and acting than design. When they arrive in their new home, arriving by plane and then driving hours to the apartment, Khalid immediately gets in a car and goes two hours away to his job; that was cutting it kind of close. Was he going to do that every day? Why is Salama's mother giving the usual I-can't-wait-to-be-a-grandmother shtick when she knows her daughter just lost a baby? What was up with that marriage counselor in the beginning? She apparently gets possessed, but Khalid and Salama don't react much when she speaks weird and says odd things (like advising clients to move thousands of miles away when they clearly disagree with each other).

Horror movies generally begin with a sense of normalcy before gradually introducing macabre and supernatural elements, but Djinn's attempts at normalcy come off as phony, contrived, and weird, almost like the people making the movie didn't have a grasp of presenting it without it seeming fake. The dialogue is terrible, with characters saying things out of the blue without motivation only to convey exposition, exposition we usually didn't require (that scene with the counselor almost kills the movie right out of the gate) or that gives away a big surprise (once we hear the legend of Djinn, we know right away who Khalid's real mother is).

All that said, the horror elements, on their own and taken apart from the story and acting, are impressive or at least well done. The apartment building itself is an ominous creepy place, and Hooper's camera captures it nicely. The Djinn's appearances are more suggested than shown, and I thought her design was nice and creepy, especially the way she glides through the air like a ghost or crawls on the floor like a corpse, her hideous visage barely hidden by a veil. There's also some fun use of darkness and light (I'm a sucker for images in the dark that vanish when you shine a light on them).

The best sequence of the movie comes at the end when the Djinn really mess with Salama and Khalid, separating them and making it difficult for them to tell what's real and what isn't. The building is especially dark and claustrophobic, and the camera swoops and dives all over the place, giving a sense of being trapped and chased. It didn't make much sense; I couldn't really follow what was going, but while watching this portion of the film, I felt like I was watching a genuine nightmare, and in the moment, I didn't care about rationality.

Horror movies don't have to be realistic and don't have to play by the rules. The trend now is be gritty and believable, so when a movie comes along that doesn't try to be, it can be a pleasant surprise. At is best, Djinn is an involving experience because of this. It's just not always at its best.