Thursday, May 18, 2017

Nightmare Alley

I've always been drawn to stories about the underbelly, the deep-seated rot and corruption that exists beneath cultured and civilized surfaces. It's why I love horror movies and film noir; they thrive on these kind of tales, the dark truth buried in the shadows.

Take carnivals. A carnival is supposed to be a fun, wonderful place filled with thrilling rides, exciting acts, and all-around entertainment, but plenty of them are scummy, dirty, ramshackle operations, and carnies operate in their own little world. It's a different lifestyle that non-carnies can't relate to. Behind the scenes, it's about the money, and who knows what other secrets are lurking beneath the happy facade shown to the outside world.

Nightmare Alley (1947) gazes at the underbelly of show business. It tells the story of a small-time hustler, Stanton "Stan" Carlisle (Tyrone Power) who begins the movie as a worker at a travelling carnival and rises to fame and fortune as a mentalist doing cold readings before falling spectacularly, undone by his greed, wandering eye, and arrogance. It's a morality play crossed with a tragedy.

"The spook racket," Stan declares, "I was made it." In many ways, he's a perfect showman: handsome, dapper, well spoke, quick on his feet, and never at a loss for words. He's a con artist; he looks at the paying public not as customers but as marks and rubes to take advantage of. Everywhere he goes, he looks for angles to exploit and plays off people's emotions, not just the woman whose dead daughter he says he communicates with but also the people who help and love him.

The movie takes us behind the curtain of show business, shows us the inner workings. We see the hidden compartments and the sleight of hands that make the magic acts appear genuine, and so does Stan. He learns from Zeena (Joan Blondell), the fortune teller, about the code she and her husband Pete (Ian Keith) used when they were at the top to make it seem she could read minds and see the future. Certain words and enunciations tip her off. Now, Pete's a drunk, but Zeena keeps the code as their "nest egg."

There's also Molly (Coleen Gray). Stan flirts with her and she reciprocates, even though she lives with Bruno the strongman (Mike Mazurki).

Carnivals are considered lowbrow, seedy attractions, but Nightmare Alley shows there's not much difference between fleecing rubes in small towns and conning the high society types in Chicago clubs. Once he learns Zeena's code, Stan moves up in the world, going from outdoor shows on cramped, rundown stages to wearing formal wear as the "Great Stanton," entertaining the rich and prominent. He goes from raking in a few bucks at a time to extracting thousands from those he convinces of his "gift."

Visually, Nightmare Alley has the expected hallmarks of film noir: the black-and-white photography, the extensive use of shadows, the harsh lighting, and distorted closeups. Instead of one femme fatale, we get three to varying degrees: Zeena, who introduces Stan to the con of mentalism; Molly, who goes along with his schemes; and Lilith Ritter (Helen Walker), a psychoanalyst who records sessions with her patients, which gives her and Stan an interesting if repugnant business idea. While Zeena and Molly might not be all bad, all three play a part in leading Stan to his downfall. The difference is while he deceives the carnival women, it's Lilith who tricks him.

Performances are all good, especially by Power. Over the course of the film, he goes from a handsome, young hustler to a smooth, polished high-society entertainer to a broken shell of a man. At the beginning of the film, upon seeing the Geek bite the heads off chickens, Stan wonders what drives a man to be that desperate. By the end, he learns the answer.

"How can a guy sink so low?"
"He reached too high."

The film leads to an incredibly dark, almost perfect ending before a disappointing last-second change of heart suggests there might be some hope for Stan. It's a false note in an otherwise fine example of the genre. There's no hope in film noir. Only despair and damnation.

The Final Cut

And so Roger Waters' tenure with the band he helped found ends not with a bang, but a lament.

Following the massive, surreal, psychedelic head trip that was The Wall, Pink Floyd followed with The Final Cut, another concept album that's about as far removed from The Wall or even the traditional Pink Floyd sound as they could get. Where The Wall was big, bold, and theatrical chronicling a rock star losing his sanity, The Final Cut is somber, contemplative, and even quiet. There's some anger here, but it's a subdued, shocked anger, coming from a place of genuine pain instead of lashing out.

"Tell me true, tell my why
Jesus was crucified.
It is for this that Daddy died?"

Like The Wall, The Final Cut was the brainchild of Roger Waters, and like he did with the former, he works his personal life into this album's story. Like his fictional counterpart in The Wall, Waters lost his father during World War II, and that loss hangs a melancholy over The Final Cut. Waters reportedly saw the then-recent Falklands War as a betrayal of what his father and others fought and died for, and The Final Cut is his response.

The Final Cut is less of a music album and more of a political and personal statement with lyrical verses and backing music for atmospheric and emotional effect. It's not a rock piece you put on in the background and bob your head to. There are no catchy choruses, pop-like riffs, memorable anthems, or soothing melodies. It requires careful attention from the listener.

Throughout the album, Waters takes shots at Margaret Thatcher, whom he refers to as Maggie. In the opening track, "The Post War Dream," looking upon the state of the world, Waters implores, "Maggie, what have we done?" On the satirical "Get Your Filthy Hands of My Desert," he notes how Maggie decided "over lunch one day" to take back the Falklands. The use of the word "desert" in the title should indicate what Waters thought of that territory. On the following song, "The Fletcher Memorial Home," Waters decries the leaders he sees as "overgrown infants" and and says they should be locked away.

"They'll be good girls and boys
in the Fletcher Memorial Home for Colonial
Wasters of Life and Limb."

The album gets personal and revisits some characters. Remember the teacher from The Wall, the one "who would hurt the children any way (he) could" but who is thrashed within an inch of his life every night by his fat, psychotic wife? Well, he's back on The Final Cut. He is returning from the war a hero, but in "The Hero's Return," we discover he's haunted by the death of his comrades. In "Paranoid Eyes," he can't relate to his wife or the people around him as he descends into drinking.

"You believed in their stories of fame, fortune, and glory.
Now you're lost in a haze of alcohol, soft middle age.
The pie in the sky turned out to be miles too high
and you hide, hide, hide
behind brown and mild eyes."

Other songs manage to be sad and peculiar. "The Gunner's Dream" tells about an airplane gunner falling through the sky to his death. As he plunges, he dreams of a future world without war. The imagery invoked is both quiet, tender, and horrific.

The Final Cut feels the least like a Pink Floyd album. There's the expected multi-instrumentation, including some jazz saxophone and backing orchestra, and the use of sound effects, but the music employs a lot of soft piano and minimalist drums and only occasional guitar solos from David Gilmour to remind us what band this is. Waters does almost all of the singing, using an echoing, almost whispered voice.

It's not an album to enjoy, but Waters' grief, anger, and feeling of betrayal are palpable. Maybe it's indulgent on Waters' part, maybe this is only for hardcore fans, but I keep returning to it and thinking about it. It lingers.

Standout Songs
"When the Tigers Broke Free" - The loss of Waters' father is felt strongest here.
"The Hero's Return" - This feels most like a traditional Pink Floyd song.
"The Final Cut" - Want to know what happened to Pink from The Wall? This offers some clues. Gilmour's solo provides some much needed release.

Favorite Moment
The closing lyrics of "When the Tigers Broke Free." They're just so sad and filled with pain.

Album Cover
Colors that seem to be military ribbons and patches across a black background. Maybe. It's vague and abstract, and it doesn't really pop. I look at it and have to wonder what it is.

Track Listing
1) The Post War Dream
2) Your Possible Pasts
3) One of the Few
4) When the Tigers Broke Free
5) The Hero's Return
6) The Gunner's Dream
7) Paranoid Eyes
8) Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert
9) The Fletcher Memorial Home
10) Southhampton Dock
11) The Final Cut
12) Not Now John
13) Two Suns in the Sunset.

Personnel
Roger Waters - Vocals, Bass, Synthesizers
David Gilmour - Guitar
Nick Mason - Drums
Assorted other guest musicians but no Richard Wright

Monday, May 15, 2017

Raw Power

Few titles describe an album better.

Raw Power by Iggy and the Stooges is an angry, aggressive album; it pulverizes the listener with a sonic assault. Unlike the psychedelic garage rock of the previous Stooges' albums, Raw Powers is a proto-punk thrasher, more distorted, intense, and primal. The music doesn't play; it attacks.

"Dance to the beat of the living dead.
Lose sleep, baby, and stay away from bed.
Raw Power is sure to come a-runnin' for you."

There's nothing fancy or refined about what the Stooges do here. The playing is basic, the composition is simple, the production is raw, and even the slower numbers "Gimme Danger" and "I Need Somebody" erupt with fury. The album is loud, crude, and full-throttled, filled with the kind of music you play when you want to blow out your speakers. Iggy Pop sings as if he's murdering someone or trying to fight the world. He explodes out of the gate with "Search and Destroy."

"I'm a street-walking cheetah with a heart full of napalm.
I'm the runaway son of the nuclear A-bomb.
I am the world's forgotten boy,
The one who searches and destroy."

The Ashton brothers return, and while Scott remains on drums, Ron takes up the bass, leaving guitar duties to the debuting James Williamson, who co-wrote the music with Iggy. Williamson plays the ax faster and with (slightly) more melody than Ron Ashton did on the previous Stooges' albums, and as a result, the guitar is more pronounced, the buzz thicker and heavier. "I Need Somebody" is a dark blues number, and the album closer "Death Trip" plays like the kind of piece one hears on a one-way descent into Hell.

"A sick boy, sick boy, goin' round, baby lose its grip.
Baby, wanna take you out with me, come along on my death trip,
My death trip."

So many acts try to project a bad boy image, but Iggy and company sound like they legitimately are dangerous, like they are going to self-destruct at any minute and take the listener with them. "Raw Power" works because it comes off as kind of slapdash, desperate, and disparate. It's a different kind of energy, one we wouldn't get if the Stooges were more refined musicians who got along with each other. They're genuine rebels, and they spit in the face of everyone and everything.

Interestingly, David Bowie of all people mixed the album for its initial release. This proto-punk grunginess is about as far removed from Bowie's glam and pop style as just about anything, but he manages to sprinkle in some touches, such as the backing piano on "Gimme Danger." Overall, he gives the album a dynamic mix that give the songs bite.

Standout Songs
"Search and Destroy" - This song plays when Bill Murray fights off pirates in Life Aquatic. If that doesn't pump you up, I don't know what will.
"Gimme Danger" - A slower, moodier piece, it just oozes with intense cool.
"Penetration" - Never has sex sounded so intense and angry.

Favorite Moment
Williamson plays a variation of the main riff in the middle of "Search and Destroy." The song sounds out of control, and this moment reasserts its power.

Album Cover
Iggy clutches a mic stand on a black stage, shirtless and emaciated. This is not someone you mess with.

Track Order
1) Search and Destroy
2) Gimme Danger
3) Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell
4) Penetration
5) Raw Power
6) I Need Somebody
7) Shake Appeal
8) Death Trip

Personnel
Iggy Pop - Vocals
James Williamson - Guitar
Ron Ashton - Bass
Scott Ashton - Drums

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Black Sabbath

Witness the birth of heavy metal.

From the opening toll of a distant bell as a ominous thunder rolls in, Black Sabbath, the eponymous debut album of the genre's most important and influential band, draws us with a dark, foreboding dread. The haunting tritone of Tony Iommi's guitar, the rumbling blare of Geezer Butler's bass, and the heartbeat tolling of Bill Ward's massive drums rise from the darkness, paving the way for the haunting wail of Ozzy Osbourne on the opening title track.

"What is this that stands before me?
Figure in black which points at me.
Turn round quick and start to run.
Find out I'm the chosen one.
Oh no."

At a time when popular music celebrated peace and love, the quartet from Birmingham, England offered a counterpoint of gloom and doom. Their songs were not about peace or love but the occult, the Devil, the end of the world, losing your soul, and the dark side of humanity. It is a dark, bleak album.

Black Sabbath began as a blues act, and their first album is very much in the tradition of the blues sound. Songs such as "The Wizard" and "N.I.B." have a swinging rhythm while later tracks "Warning" and "Wicked World" sound like extended jam sessions. The difference between is the, well, wicked tone. Iommi and Butler heavily distort their instruments, creating the distinctive, powerful crunch that would serve as a crucial building block in heavy metal.

"Now I have you with me, under my power.
Our love grows stronger now with every hour.
Look into my eyes, you'll see who I am.
My name is Lucifer, please take my hand."

In the decades since, heavy metal would get faster (especially as the New Wave of British Heavy Metal and American Thrash started taking influence from the punk movement), but Black Sabbath here in no rush to impress. The sludge-like tempo feels appropriate, a gradual building atmosphere of fear and evil taking over. You can't stop it, and you can't misdirect it; it's all encompassing, and it's taking over. It's a very assured, confident sound, and in it's own way, it's exquisite.

The first several tracks - the title song, "The Wizard," "Behind the Wall of Sleep," and "N.I.B." - are as perfect as heavy metal can be. The subsequent songs aren't as strong. They're still solid and well played, but they aren't the masterpieces the first four are and feel a bit directionless, depriving the album of an epic climax worthy of the opening songs. Still, the album remains the most important release in heavy metal and any fan of the genre must hear it.

"Now from darkness there springs light
Wall of Sleep is cool and bright
Wall of Sleep is lying broken
Sun shines in you have awoken"

Standout Songs
"Black Sabbath" - The first song in the history of heavy metal initiates us to a world of doom and gloom.
"The Wizard" - Ozzy plays the harmonica and is still heavy as hell.
"N.I.B." - This remains one of the band's darkest and catchiest songs.

Favorite Moment
Geezer Butler has a killer bass solo leading into "N.I.B." called "Basically."

Album Cover
A strange woman in black stands outside a watermill. Gothic, oddly medieval, and creepy as hell.

Track Order
1) Black Sabbath
2) The Wizard
3) Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep/Basically/N.I.B.
4) Wicked World
5) A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village/Warning

Personnel
Ozzy Osboune - Vocals
Tony Iommi - Guitar
Geezer Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Monday, May 1, 2017

Free Fire

I think we've all heard the joke about action movies in which the bad guys shooting countless rounds and can't hit the hero while all the good guy has to do is point and shoot and another villain falls over dead. Considering every character in Free Fire (2017) is pretty much a heel, we shouldn't be surprised they're all terrible shots.

Executive produced by Martin Scorsese and directed by Ben Wheatley, Free Fire concerns itself with an arms deal gone wrong. In 1970s Boston, a couple of IRA operatives, Frank (Michael Smiley) and Chris (Cillian Murphy), along with Frank's brother Stevo (Sam Riley), and Stevo's friend Bernie (Enzo Cilenti), go to a warehouse to buy guns. Vernon (Sharlto Copley) is the seller while the brokers are Ord (Arnie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Things go sour because both sides have brought along people who can't control their emotions.

Shots are fired, people are wounded, and the rest of the movie becomes a violent game of cat and mouse (as well as verbal sparring). Most movies of this type, like Reservoir Dogs, usually build to the big shootout at the end where most if not all the characters are killed.

In Free Fire, the big shootout occurs early on, everyone is hit, but instead of the movie being over, it's just getting warmed up. The characters, bleeding profusely from wounds in their arms and legs, crawl and drag themselves across this dirty, nasty, grimy floor (one character accidentally stabs himself in the palm with a hypodermic needle). All the while, they continue to shoot at each other intermittently and try to negotiate some kind of resolution.

If nothing else, Wheatley deserves credit for a unique spin on a well-worn genre. In a sense, he's applying strict logic to a hard-boiled situation. People get shot, and it hurts. Like, really hurts, enough to severely inconvenience them. Bullets in your arm make it hard to aim and bullets in your leg make it hard to run, and the guy who just shot you is a total asshole about it. This is the kind of movie that has you giggling one minute, wincing the next, and laughing again even as the violence ramps up to almost ridiculous levels.

That's pretty much the plot of the movie. Once the guns start firing and characters start double-crossing each other, it remains in the warehouse for the remainder of its running length. No new ground is tread, either in the movie itself or in its presentation, but it certainly is never boring, and a great cast enlivens the well-worn material.

Sharlto Copley continues to prove he's one of Hollywood's most interesting actors working today with another great performance. In a movie full of bad guys, Vernon is the true out-and-out villain, and Copley gives him appropriate quirkiness (he was misdiagnosed as a child genius and still pretty pissed about it) with mad dog ferocity. After getting shot, he wraps his wounds in soggy cardboard because, as he explains, the bigger risk is infection than the bullet itself.

Murphy, the closest thing to a normal, level-headed good guy, grounds the proceedings, keeping them from getting too outlandish. Larson, the only female cast member, hangs tough with the boys, but the biggest surprise is Hammer. I've never been impressed with him one way or the other before, but Ord is probably my favorite character. As the arms deal broker, he has no allegiance to either side and continues to treat the situation like a normal business deal with himself amused more than anything. He never yells or gets angry. During the fighting, he takes cover to roll a joint.

Wheatley keeps things moving and shoots the action with an immediate, visceral touch, although there were times I lost track spatially of who was where in relation to everyone else.

Monday, April 24, 2017

The Wall

Looking back on my review of Alan Parker's film adaptation of Pink Floyd's album, I find in the very first sentence I declared The Wall to be "my favorite music album." I'm not here to backtrack it. If anything, that sentiment has only grown stronger. (Side note, that review is just over five years old. Feels just like yesterday.).

My musical tastes have grown, I've been exposed to a lot of great music from many wonderful bands and artists, and yet, I keep returning to The Wall. It's my go-to album when I have a long, lonely road trip, and while I can't relate to everything the main character of the album goes through, something about the music speaks to me. It's not a happy album, it's not a rocking one, and in fact, it's downright nightmarish, surreal and frightening, but I can't help but be moved by it every time I hear or discover something new to appreciate about it.

"So ya
Thought ya
Might like to go to the show
To feel the warm thrill of confusion
That space cadet glow"

The Wall is another concept album by Pink Floyd. It tells the story of a rock star named... Pink Floyd. Mentally and emotionally, Pink has walled himself from the rest of the world, and the album lyrically explores the source of his neurosis, his fragile psyche, and how all the traumatic experiences of his life - the death of his father in World War II, the smothering of his overbearing mother, the infidelity of his wife - shaped him and transformed into, I'll say it, a monster.

Much of these story elements, in one form or another, are autobiographical details of Roger Waters, who wrote the album, and other aspects, the crazed rock star aspect and the drug abuse, draw on the life of former Pink Floyd band member Syd Barrett, who famously had a breakdown before leaving the band. So, yes, it would be accurately to describe the album as narcissistic and indulgent. It's also accurate to call the album brilliant, fascinating, multi-layered, and ambitious.

Musically, Pink Floyd has rarely sounded better. Guitarist David Gilmour, bassist Waters, drummer Nick Mason, and keyboardist Richard Wright sound fantastic, and the arrangements are superb. Gilmour plays some of his best solos, especially on "Comfortably Numb" and "Young Lust."

"There is no pain you are receding
A distant ship, smoke on the horizon
You are only coming through in waves.
Your lips move but I can't hear what you're saying."

The band goes in many directions without disintegrating; the sound - whether the rising "Empty Spaces," the disco-like march of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2," the acoustic "Mother" - remains unified within the theme and story of the album. They play fast, they play slow, loud, quiet, dark, light, and it all works.

From a production standpoint, the album mixes in several other elements: children's choirs, TV samples, ringing phones, and other pieces that add and progress the story without being overwhelming. Even the switch between characters is easy to follow through the use of guest vocalists and Waters and Gilmour trading off on different songs.

The Wall has so much going for it. It is fascinating to poke and prod at it from many different angles, musically, lyrically, psychologically, and others. I think of it as a journey, an emotional trek through despair, anger, misery, loneliness, alienation, and fear that transcends that in the end with stunning release and beauty.

"Hey you, out there in the cold
Getting lonely, getting old
Can you feel me?"

Standout Songs
Another Brick in the Wall (Part II) - the iconic anthem of the album
Mother - Wonderful acoustic piece
Young Lust - The closest thing to a traditional, partying rock song on the album while simultaneously knocking down the rock star lifestyle
Comfortably Numb - A song I am desperately trying to learn to play on guitar

Favorite Moment
Say it with me: "Tear down the wall! Tear down the wall! Tear down the wall!" After so much darkness and despair, it is cathartic to hear this chant, followed by the inevitable crumbling.

Album Cover
A brick wall with the band's name and the title stenciled in red over it. Bleak, oppressive, appropriate.

Track Order
Disc 1
1) In the Flesh?
2) The Thin Ice
3) Another Brick in the Wall (Part I)
4) The Happiest Days of Our Lives
5) Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)
6) Mother
7) Goodbye Blue Sky
8) Empty Spaces
9) Young Lust
10) One of My Turns
11) Don't Leave Me Now
12) Another Brick in the Wall (Part III)
13) Goodbye Cruel World

Disc 2
1) Hey You
2) Is There Anybody Out There
3) Nobody Home
4) Vera 
5) Bring the Boys Back Home
6) Comfortably Numb
7) The Show Must Go ON
8) Run Like Hell
9) Waiting for the Worms
10) Stop
11) The Trial
12) Outside the Wall

Personnel
Roger Waters - Vocals, Bass, Synthesizer, Guitar
David Gilmour - Guitar, Vocals 
Nick Mason - Drums, Percussion
Richard Wright - Piano, Organ, Synthesizer, 
And a load of guest musicians.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Your Name

Body swap movies, like the buddy cop genre, have been done so many times the formula is encased in concrete, and usually, that formula focuses on two characters who learn to appreciate what the other goes through and brings them closer, like the mother and daughter in Freaky Friday and the father and son in Vice Versa. It's predictable, but it can be done well.

Your Name (2016), an anime film directed by Makoto Shinkai (and based on his novel of the same name), is a body swap movie, but it plays with the formula and is not so easily predictable. It's less about understanding the other person and more about finding the other person in this chaotic experience we call life.

Our body swappers in this case are a couple of high school students. Mitsuha (Mone Kamihiraishi) lives in the rural town of Itomori where her father is the mayor. Taki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) lives in Tokyo and works part-time in a restaurant.

This is where I'm supposed to say, "One day, they wake up in each other's bodies," but that would be slightly misleading. Yes, that is what happens, but unlike other body swap movies, the switch is not permanent nor is it explained. It happens randomly, without rhyme or reason, and they just as easily return to their own bodies after experiencing the other's life for the day (the only structure is the switch begins when one wakes up and ends when he or she goes back to sleep at the end of the day).

The obligatory elements of the genre appear here. Of course, Mitsuha and Taki, who have never met and don't know each other, are confused by what happens, and they wreak a fair bit of havoc on each other's life because they don't know where they are or who they're with or what they're supposed to do. So we get scenes of Mitsuha not knowing how to work in the restaurant and being amazed to be in the big city for the first time to the confusion of Taki's friends. Meanwhile, Taki, as Mitsuha, can't resist copping a feel on his newfound boobs, much to the puzzlement of Mitsuha's little sister.

What would it really like to wake up and be another person, even if only for a day? Your Name suggests it's like being a dream. Everything feels different, you don't know anyone but they all know you, and when you find yourself back in your own body, it's difficult remembering exactly where you had been. Was it real? Did it really happen? A feeling that is so familiar and yet so far away and barely glimpsed.

The movie moves into different territory when Taki decides he wants to see Mitsuha. All he has to go on are drawings of her town they made from memory. When he learns the truth of where she is, it's a genuine shock, and I will say no more, but leave that for you to discover yourself.

There are moments of tremendous beauty in Your Name and moments that capture a certain magic. Mitsuha and her sister partake in a religious ceremony to make a special kind of sake, kuchikamizake, as an offering in the family tomb. The ceremony involves elaborate costumes and dance. The journey to the tomb itself, located within a crater and surrounded by water, generates a strong spiritual feeling.

Later, during the town festival, a comet passes overhead and splits into many parts. Without spoiling too much, let me say this a key moment in the plot because we know something about the comet that the other characters don't, so there is a degree of tension and suspense, but it is a strikingly and awe-inspiring streak of color and streams. As frightening and confusing as life can be, it can be wondrous.

When it looks like Mitsuha and Taki will finally meet face-to-face for the first time, the scene occurs during the twilight, which we're told is when spirits come to life and fantastical things become possible, which given the circumstances of the characters at this time, is fitting. They meet on the edge of a crater, overlooking a lake and town. It's a very tender moment, they're so happy to finally meet, and they agree to write their names on each other's hands before they wake up and forget. Taki writes first, but when he passes the pen to Mitsuha, she pops out of existence. Twilight has passed. I almost gasped.

Back in her bed, Mitsuha wakes up and looks at her hand. Taki didn't write his name.

He wrote, "I love you."

Friday, April 21, 2017

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood

What is the value of a human life? What could anyone offer that would be equal to the life of even one person?

That question is one of many philosophical mysteries in Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, an anime based on the manga of the same name. It's the question that sets our main characters off on a journey that marks their minds, bodies, and souls. At its heart, the series centers on the conflict between those who would destroy or control life to advance their aims and those who cherish life more than anything else and will protect it at all costs.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood centers on two young brothers: Edward and Alphonse Elric. In the country of Amestris, they are employed as state alchemists by the military and are the youngest state alchemists in history. In fact, it is Edward's codename, Fullmetal, that supplies the title. I should note Alphonse is a suit of armor.

More accurately, Alphonse's soul is bonded to a massive suit of armor. As young children, Ed and Al committed the major transgression of alchemy, human transmutation, in a failed attempt to resurrect their mother Trisha Elric, who had died of an illness. Crossing over to the "other side," Ed lost an arm and a leg while Al lost his entire body. Their father, Von Hoheneim, himself an accomplished alchemist, left them when they were young and never returned.

The teenaged Elric Brothers, especially Ed, are exceptionally talented at alchemy, and in between completing missions for the military, they search the countryside for a way to restore their bodies.

The quest of the Elrics is the base plot on which everything else rests, and everything else encompasses a lot. The anime is filled with dozens of primary characters and their affiliated circles along with big narrative threads and countless subplots and personal vignettes. If there's one thing to say about Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, it does not lack for material, richness, or detail. I'll try to cover some of the more important characters as succinctly as I can.

- Winry Rockbell, a childhood friend of the Elrics. She is a skilled mechanic and constantly repairs Ed's damaged prosthetics, which are known as automail. She lives with her dog Den and grandmother Pinako but has a way of getting involved with the boys' adventures.

- Colonel Roy Mustang, an ambitious military officer also known as the Flame Alchemist. He is focused on eventually becoming fuhrer, the military leader of Amestris, but he is loyal to those around him, especially longtime associates Lt. Riza Hawkeye and Colonel Maes Hughes.

- Fuhrer King Bradley, the military dictator of Amestris who is respected for his superior fighting skills and beloved by his people for his devotion to his country. It is Bradley who recruits the Elrics as state alchemists.

- Scar, a vengeful killer with no name targeting state alchemists, whom he believes are defying God's will. Scar is from the province of Ishval, which was a country annexed by Amestris, leading to a bloody war that ended after the Amestrian leadership ordered the extermination of the Ishvalan people, wiping out most of them in a genocide conducted mainly by the state alchemists (state alchemists by the way are referred to as "Dogs of the Military").

- Princess May Chang and Prince Ling Yao. Contenders to the throne of Xing, a neighboring country across the desert. May is a young girl, always accompanied by her little panda (that everyone refers to as a cat) named Xiao-Mei, but she is skilled in Alkahestry, another form of Alchemy. Ling is a cocky young man with a pair of body guards, Fu and Fu's granddaughter Lan Fan. May and Ling arrive in Amestris looking for a way to become immortal.

I could go on. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a series in which history, both personal and national, plays a pertinent, ongoing role, and everyone is connected in an ever-expanding web. It very much concerns itself with legacy, the legacy parents have on their children, the legacy wars have nations, and the legacy we leave on the people around us. Amestris is a country with a trouble past and an uncertain future, controlled by a ruthless military and defended by people who end up questioning their values and beliefs as they learn the truth about those who lead them and what they've done.

Alchemy is based on the idea of equivalent exchange: to get something, you must sacrifice something of equal value. For example, Ed can fashion his automail arm into a blade during a fight or extract steel from a wall to make a sword. In a gruesome example, a rebel alchemist uses his blood to create a weapon. So the question becomes: with all those lost lives in the Ishval Civil War, what did Amestris receive in return?

Fairly early into the series, Ed and Al discover they might be able to restore their bodies when they learn of Philosopher's Stones. A Philosopher's Stone amplifies transmutation abilities, granting seemingly unlimited power to the user, but it comes at a heavy cost. To create a Philosopher's Stone, one must harvest human souls to power it. That Ed and Al are horrified by the idea and refuse to take any lives under any circumstances sets them at odds with the villains of the series, who see human lives as mere pawns to be spent. The Elrics and their allies give all they can, and their enemies only take.

The initial villains of the piece include Scar as well as high-ranking elements in the military, but the ultimate villains are revealed to be something much worse. Artificially created humans known as Homunculus, each with terrifying powers and abilities, are behind a great deal of the scheming and evil in the series, and they serve a mysterious figure known as Father (who looks like Von Hohenheim). Simply put, the Homunculus - each named after one of the Seven Deadly sins - are monsters, and they include the shape-shifting Envy, the hulking Sloth, the man-eating Gluttony, and the shadow-being Pride, who masks his true form beneath the visage of a young boy.

And yet, the Homunculus are not one-dimensional threats. They have their quirks and foibles. Gluttony, who looks like a massive Ziggy, is relentlessly cheerful and almost child-like, even as he announces his intention to eat someone. Greed is the rebel of the group who acts out his own agenda. And yet as monstrous as they are, for all the contempt they hold humanity in, one still can't help but feel some pity for them when they meet their fates over the course of the series.

Tonally, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is all over the place like a roller coaster. There's exciting action, terrifying fights to the deaths, tearjerking goodbyes and realizations, heartwarming relationships, tragic downfalls, cruelty, adventure, comedy, even some romance. Sometimes, the tones overlap.

Early on, Al and Ed meet a state alchemist, Shou Tucker, with a cute little daughter, Nina, and a big friendly dog, Alexander. Tucker's work is stagnate, and he's worried he'll lose his job, so he fuses Nina and Alexander into a human-animal monstrosity called a Chimera. This after Ed and Al spent the day playing with Nina and Alexander and growing fond of them. The resulting creature is horrifying to look at but pitiful, and the Elrics' rage at Tucker is palpable. The gradual realization of what he's done is one of the show's most shocking moments.

It's not all doom and gloom. Sometimes, there's silly comedy. Take Major Alex Louis Armonstrong, the Strong Arm Alchemist. He's a hulking, overly muscular man with a shaved head and blonde mustache; he looks like an old-time strongman. Yet, he's a big teddy bear, prone to weeping with joy and wrapping others up in a big bear hug. He also likes to flex. Just wait until you meet his ice queen sister, General Armstrong, who thinks her brother is a weakling.

Meanwhile, Ed and Al have a tendency to get scolded and beat up by those who love them, mainly Winry and their alchemy teacher, and there is a running gag about how insecure Ed is about his short stature. He hates being called short.

Visually, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is stunning. The fights involving alchemists involve much manipulation of the environment, like summoning a wall out of the ground to block an attack or transforming concrete into a giant fist. The realm beyond the living world, whether nebulous shadows or infinite emptiness, suggest a hellish landscape. Dark tendrils lurk in blackness, ready to drag people off; eyes and teeth appear on people in places you'd prefer they didn't; and the pour souls used in Philosopher's Stones are left in a twisted state of eternal agony.

Overall, it's an aesthetically pleasing world just to take in and look at. The world looks fairly modern - guns, cars, trains, etc - but has an old-fashioned, fairy-tale like touch. The characters look distinct, the environments are interesting, and the supernatural elements are alternatively beautiful and terrifying (sometimes both). When something overtly comical happens - like when someone gets scolded - their character designs simplified and without details, as if their fear and embarrassment has drained them of their distinguishing features.

With more than sixty episodes, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood is a huge commitment. I confess I found the middle section dragging a bit, but by the end, I was sad to see it conclude. I wanted it to keep going. The characters go through so much and change greatly; even the side characters have their arcs. It felt like watching my own friends and family go their separate ways.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Paranoid

This is what we call a calling card. If you want someone to understand what Black Sabbath was all about, you have them listen to Paranoid.

Paranoid, released in 1970, is the album that defines Black Sabbath. If their eponymous debut created the heavy metal genre and later releases found them experimenting and stretching their sound to the limits, then Paranoid, their second album captured everything they were all about: the crunching riffs, the foreboding atmosphere, the dark and often apocalyptic lyrics. Black Sabbath the album may have been more groundbreaking, but Paranoid is more refined and packed with more classic songs.

The album begins in high gear with the absolutely epic War Pigs, one of Sabbath's all-time great cuts. With a subtle background of air raid sirens adding some early atmosphere, the song launches into a massive, stop-and-start rhythm that builds in intensity. The group also works in some political digs in their lyrics, as the band attacks the military who would do Satan's bidding by causing evil and destructive wars.

"Generals gathered in their masses
Just like witches in black masses.
Evil minds that plot destruction, 
sorcerers of death's construction."

That angry tone continues on other songs throughout the album, suggesting a lashing out at the evils and hypocrisies of the world. Humanity will doom itself whether it's through war, drugs, or some other form of destruction. The psychedelic, almost funky "Electrical Funeral" chronicles nuclear fallout and the devastation it has on humans, and "Iron Man," with its stomping, monster riff, is not about the Marvel superhero but a time traveler who ends up transformed into the very instrument of destruction he tried to warn the world about.

The moody, sinister "Hand of Doom" depicts the horrors of heroin. It's a slow, almost subdued piece during the main riff and stanzas, with Ozzy singly comparatively softly and Geezer Butler's methodical bass lines offering the only instrumentation. Like here's the calm, mellow part of addiction, but when the song gets to the chorus, the volume cranks up and the music intensifies in speed and intensity, as the heroin reveals its true, deadly nature.

"Take your written rules
You join the other fools
Turn to something new
Now it's killing you."

Sabbath also turns inward and finds fear and a state of mind that is, well, paranoid. The title track, originally a filler song, finds Ozzy lost in his mind, alienated from the world around him and himself and despairing. It's the fastest and shortest song on the album on the track, and it blazes through with yet another iconic Iommi riff, Geezer's pumping bass, and Bill Ward's frenzied drumming.

"And so as you hear these words telling you now of my state,
I tell you to enjoy life. I wish I could but it's too late."

Elsewhere, Ward gets an extended drum solo on "Rat Salad" that rivals John Bonham's "Moby Dick." Sabbath also gets somber on the quiet interlude "Planet Caravan," with soft vocals from Ozzy; this song follows "Paranoid" and precedes "Iron Man" and feels like a brief respite from the despair on one side and doom on the other. 

Everything comes together at the end with "Fairies Wear Boots." This is perhaps the band's weirdest song with some of their oddest lyrics ("Fairies wear boots dancing with a dwarf"), but it has a swinging, almost jazz-like rhythm that paired with Iommi's metallic riffs makes for an idiosyncratic and masterful closer.


Standout Songs
War Pigs - Epic opener is an apocalyptic roller coaster.
Paranoid - A concise primer on everything awesome about Sabbath.
Iron Man - Feel the power and fury when you listen to this.
Electric Funeral - Who knew the end of the world would be so funky?
Fairies Wear Boots - Surreal, swinging closer contains some of the band's best sounds.

Favorite Moment
So hard to choose, but I got to go with a guitar lick by Tony Iommi just over six-and-a-half minutes into "War Pigs" as it transfers over into "Luke's Wall," the outgoing solo. It's like time to ride out the nightmare to the end.

Album Cover
A blurred, pink swordsman in the woods. Certainly memorable and recognizable, but I'm not too crazy about it.

Track Order
1) War Pigs/Luke's Wall
2) Paranoid
3) Planet Caravan
4) Iron Man
5) Electric Funeral
6) Hand of Doom
7) Rat Salad
8) Jack the Stripper/Fairies Wear Boots

Lineup
Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Tony Iommi - Guitar
Geezer Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Monsterican Dream

Finnish shock rockers Lordi are the ultimate Halloween party band. Every song - whether a catchy, anthemic rock song or piano-driven power ballad - celebrates all things ghoulish and macabre, and the members are decked into monster movie makeup that would make Kiss and Gwar blush in shame. You listen to them, and you just want to get your freak on.

Lordi is a deliberate throwback band, the kind of act that would have been at home in the eighties playing alongside the likes of Alice Cooper or Twisted Sister. They play unabashed, melodic hard rock and pair it up with a larger-than-life and morbid theatricality.

Take 2004's The Monsterican Dream. The album opens with a track called "Theatrical Trailer," and it plays like a radio spot for an upcoming horror movie. As background music quickly builds and swells, a narrator warns us the band is back, the ones so vicious, evil, and deadly. He lists them by name - Kita, Enary, Kalma, Amen, and Lordi - these "raging hounds" are back to "bring it on." That leads appropriately into the first proper song, "Bring It On (The Raging Hounds Returns)."

"The rancorous return from their graves
Won't you bring it on, bring it on big time
Bring it on, bring it on down
Bring it on
Behold your town will burn
As the raging hounds return"

The song is fitting. Lordi plays like a bunch of vicious, rabid dogs, monstrous beasts who see what they want and attack it with no mercy. We are coming, and you should be afraid; that is the confidence of Lordi. This driving style does not let up on such songs as "Blood Red Sandman," about a serial killer (possibly Jack the Ripper) returning after the people prayed he'd never come back; "My Heaven is Your Hell," a song which requires no further elaboration of its meaning; and "Shotgun Divorce," about a woman who is final in her decision to end her marriage.

Lordi celebrate wickedness and all the other taboos normal people find repellent. The band can't resist a good, below-the-belt innuendo, and such odes to sex include "Pet the Destroyer," "Wake the Snake," and "Fire in the Hole." It may be juvenile, but it's funny.

"Pet the destroyer
My beast Le royal
Pet my destroyer
Sweet killing machine
Oh won't you please meet the beast?"

Even the ballads, while giving some breathing room between the straight-ahead rockers, are warped and spooky. "Magistre Nocte" is a haunting, atmospheric piano piece, and "The Children of the Night" offers no tenderness or love; this is a song about murdering children and hiding their skulls under the floor, but still their voices cry out.

"In the dead of night, I hear them sigh, The Children of the night are calling
I hear a cry, they still defy, endlessly I fell like falling on the road
My children of the night"

Yes, Lordi glorifies all things bad taste, but they do it in a way that rocks. The songs are catchy and driving, the production is clean and polished, and the band crosses the line from repulsive to funny. It's so outrageous, it's impossible to not find it infectious. You'll pump your fist, bang your head, and feel the beast within.

Standout Songs
Blood Red Sandman - This song about the Jack the Ripper packs a mean crunch and a haunting, child-like chorus.
Pet the Destroyer -  I can't believe it took me as many listens as it did to realize this pumped-up, pulsing, throbbing piece was about Mr. Lordi's dick.

Favorite Moment
In the final song, Amen hits an absolutely killer guitar solo that is most triumphant. It soars.

Album Cover
A portrait of the band members in closeup with Mr. Lordi's visage being the largest and dead trees in the night behind them. Ghoulish, in-your-face, dark, like the band will bite you if you pick up the album.

Track Order
1) Theatrical Trailer
2) Bring It On (The Raging Hounds Return)
3) Blood Red Sandman
4) My Heaven is Your Hell
5) Pet the Destroyer
6) The Children of the Night
7) Wake the Snake
8) Shotgun Divorce
9) Forsaken Fashion Dolls
10) Haunted Town
11) Fire in the Hole
12) Magistra Nocte
13) Kalmageddon

Lineup
Mr. Lordi - Vocals
Amen - Guitar
Enary - Keyboard
Kita - Drums
Kalma - Bass

Monday, April 3, 2017

Black Sabbath Vol. 4

Originally titled Snowblind, Black Sabbath's fourth album, Black Sabbath Vol. 4, reveals the lords of gloom and doom beginning a progressive streak that would continue through their next few albums while simultaneously crafting one of music's heaviest albums. It's something of an unfocused album with the band seemingly trying their hand at everything that interests them. Don't look now, but the boys from Birmingham are expanding their minds and experimenting with their sound.

Sabbath's first three albums (their eponymous debut, Paranoid, and Master of Reality) sounded like they could be the soundtracks for a gothic horror movie and were filled with spooky, eerie, and downright apocalyptic lyrics and instrumentation. Vol. 4 proves heavier than that trio but not as dark.

Tony Iommi's guitar and Geezer Butler's bass still pack a sludgy, moody punch, but Ozzy Osbourne sings not of devils, nuclear war, or damnation, but instead, the songs are about ... actually, I'm not always sure. The lyrics are more abstract and surreal, like in the opener "Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener."


"Long ago I wandered through my mind
In the land of fairy tales and stories
Lost in happiness I had no fears
Innocence and love was all I knew
Was it illusion?"


It's no secret the members of Black Sabbath were strung out on drugs during recording, specifically cocaine (note the original album title), and in fact, "Snowblind" finds the band celebrating the magic powder. The ascending guitar riff of "Snowblind" is one of the best and heaviest in Sabbath's canon, and Ozzy sings about the freedom of his mind the drug has brought him and feeling bad when it wears off.


"Let the winter sun shine on
Let me feel the frost of dawn
Fill my dreams with flakes of snow
Soon I'll feel the chilling glow."


In retrospect, maybe this album should have been called Master of Reality. The songs are more about perception, the vastness of the mind, and dreams. These guys are trying to break out of the limits of reality and transcend. As Ozzy sings on "Supernaut," "I want to reach out and touch the sky. I want to touch the sun but I don't need to fly."

This holds true musically. While still based on the sludgy, heavy sound that defines Sabbath, the songs find the group expanding outward. "Changes," a sappy lost love ballad, uses a soft piano, and "Laguna Sunrise" incorporates a classic guitar piece with a backing orchestra. Even "Supernaut," which is massive and crushing, has a funk-inspired breakdown toward the end. "Wheels of Confusion" is a complex, multi-part song, as is "Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes," the album closer.

"So believe what I tell you, it's the only way you'll find in the end
Just believe in yourself, you know you really shouldn't have to pretend
don't let those empty people try to interfere with your mind
Just live your life and leave them all behind."

Vol. 4 finds Black Sabbath pushing their sludgy heavy sound into new and interesting directions. The result is an album that's at various times, beautiful, tender, strange, powerful, heavy, massive, and transcendent. 

Standout Songs
Supernaut - Heavy and psychedelic, the song includes a funky, almost Caribbean drum solo that somehow fits perfectly.
Snowblind - A glorious ode to cocaine, it contains one of Tony Iommi's best riffs.

Favorite Moment
The opening riff of "Snowblind." It was one of my favorite pieces to learn on guitar.

Album Cover

In white block letters, the band's name and the album title wrap around an orange imprint of Ozzy with his arms raised to the sky. Maybe not the flashiest but an indication that this album will stretch out a bit but remain true to the band's core

Track Order

1) Wheels of Confusion/The Straightener
2) Tomorrow's Dream
3) Changes
4) FX
5) Supernaut
6) Snowblind
7) Cornucopia
8) Laguna Sunrise
9) St. Vitus Dance
10) Under the Sun/Every Day Comes and Goes

Lineup

Ozzy Osbourne - Vocals
Tony Iommi - Guitar
Geezer Butler - Bass
Bill Ward - Drums

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Nice Guys

Tell me if you've heard this before: a lazy and perpetually intoxicated detective figure in Hollywood, a gruff partner who does not let aggression stand, a missing young woman whose family is hiding something, corrupt businessmen, threats and talks of castration, some bohemian hippy types, and a trip through the world of pornography.

You're right; those are elements of The Big Lebowski. They're also the elements of The Nice Guys (2016), directed by Shane Black, who ramps up the action, dials down the surreal weirdness of the Coen Brothers, and places more emphasis on the plot. Imagine if the Dude had a 13-year-old daughter and a job and Walter Sobchak was more calm and competent, and you'll have a good idea of what The Nice Guys is all about. It establishes its own quirky identity and packs plenty of laughs.

Our heroes are a couple of 1970s L.A. private detectives: Holland March (Ryan Gosling), a boozing widower with a 13-year-old daughter named Holly (Angourie Rice), and Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), an enforcer who uses brass knuckles to beat up people. One of the movie's inspirations is how March is the jerk and Healy is a calm, rather polite professional. They meet when Healy is paid to get March to stop following Amelia (Margaret Qualley). As he beats him up, Healy even tells March which arm bone to tell the doctor is broken. When he leaves, Healy accepts a Yoo-hoo from Holly and genuinely enjoys it.

Things get twisted when Amelia disappears and a couple of thugs (including Keith David) attempt to torture Healy for information about her whereabouts. So, Healy and March reluctantly team up to locate Amelia and get to the bottom of what's going on. It all leads to Amelia's mother Judith (Kim Basinger), a top Justice Department Official; a porn producer; some environmental protesters complaining about smog; and some dealings with Detroit's Big Three Auto producers. And of course, Holly inserts herself into the mix.

Fundamentally, The Nice Guys is a buddy cop movie. Two mismatched partners are forced to team up to take down the bad guys, and over the course of the movie, they grow to respect and even like each other. A movie like this depends on the chemistry of leads, and Gosling and Crowe have great chemistry.

March is the kind of guy who won't say no free alcohol while staking out a wild party at the porn producer's mansion and ends up swimming in the pool with the porn star mermaids, but he's just good enough as a detective to be believable. Healy is focused and wants to do the right thing, but he gets his hands dirty and doesn't shy away from being violent. They both make mistakes, they both cause trouble, and deep down, despite the sleazy nature of their work, they're both nice guys. Holly sees the good in both and tries to get them to be that way.

The plot's not too original, but Black knows how to balance the comedy with high stakes. The movie knows when it's time to get serious (but not too serious). Amelia is terrified for her life, and Holly is smart enough to realize when she's walked into a dangerous situation. Shootouts occurs, blood flies, bones break, etc. The action scenes are nothing too special in a post John Wick world, but they get the job done.

Black also includes some inspired hallucinatory weirdness. When Healy approaches March with the offer to team up, it's in the bathroom of the bowling alley where Holly's birthday party is being held, and March is sitting on a toilet; he tries to keep a gun drawn on Healy while failing to keep the stall door open. Later, March falls asleep at the wheel and has a talk with a giant, talking, smoking bee in the back seat (that scene actually pays off twice in the plot, so it's not completely random).

And now, I'm suddenly craving some Yoo-hoo.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Bone Tomahawk

Based on early word of mouth, I expected Bone Tomahawk (2015) to be the closest we're going to get to a film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Bone Tomahawk has its share of horrors, depravity, and violence, and squeamish viewers will no doubt watch many moments with their fingers  over their eyes as characters are shot, stabbed, gutted, scalped, and eviscerated in gory detail.

Bone Tomahawk melds two genres: the Western Movie and the Cannibal Film. The only other movie I can think of to do so is Ravenous, but the movies could not be any more dissimilar. Ravenous is a dark comedy with a supernatural element (eating a person allows you to absorb their strength and heal from mortal injury), a wonky musical score, and a wintery army camp for its location.

By contrast, Bone Tomahawk has practically no music, much less humor (though it has its share), and the hot, blazing sun of dry desert valleys. It's a much more grim film and not "fun" the way Ravenous is. And where Ravenous resembled more of a vampire film (outside villain infiltrates group, turns allies into enemies, etc.), Bone Tomahawk shares a greater kinship with the Italian cannibal flicks and Eli Roth's The Green Inferno: civilized people penetrate a dangerous wilderness and are captured by the savage inhabitants.

The Western elements are more obvious, not just in the expected imagery but also the main plot. Indians kidnap some settlers, and a heroic group bands together to rescue them. That's straight out of John Ford's The Searchers with John Wayne, only this time, the sheriff and his group find themselves in way over their heads, outmatched, outmaneuvered, and outnumbered by a ruthless enemy who knows the terrain better and shows no mercy.

Kurt Russell is in the John Wayne role as Sheriff Frank Hunt. The rest of his makeshift posse includes his backup deputy Chicory (Richard Jenkins), experienced Indian killer Brooder (Matthew Fox), and the man in the leg brace, Arthur O'Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), whose wife Samantha (Lili Simmons) was among the captured.

These characters are straight out of Hollywood's Western legacy. The cannibal tribe emerges from the dungeon. The "troglodytes," as they are referred to, live in a cave, dwell on interlopers, move like wraiths through the shadows, communicate with wolf howls and grunts, and the movie avoids giving us long looks at them. In a hundred years, they could be the mutant family from The Hills Have Eyes. The normal, civilized Western characters have no way of comprehending these monsters.

The violence in Bone Tomahawk is not pretty or glamorized. Usually, it's sudden, out-of-nowhere, and quiet. Many times, it's over before the viewer has a chance to process it, and the effect is jarring, shocking, and disquieting. There's plenty of gore shown on screen and implied off screen (accompanied by sickening sound effects), and most eerily, there's no music accompanying it. We have no choice but to watch.

Performances are mostly strong. Russell embodies rugged authority better than just about anyone, and Jenkins, unrecognizable, convinces as the old timer perhaps a bit too eager to help out. Fox plays the most complicated character; Brooder is the most educated, dressed most fancily, and has a reputation as a ladykiller, but he's also casually racist and eager to kill more Indians (we learn his motivation later). He's the most "civilized" character and embodies some of civilization's worst and best traits.

By default, Wilson has to be the boring lead (kind of a habit for him), notable only for his determination, and Simmons feels too modern with the script giving her too many scolding lines that only serve to offer unneeded exposition.

First-time director S. Craig Zahler crafts some memorable and nightmarish images (like the troglodyte women who are kept blind, limbless, and pregnant) and suspense (I really liked the scene where Wilson desperately reloads as a troglodyte charges). The pace drags though. At more than two hours and ten minutes in length, the movie would have been a lean, mean thriller at the 90-100 minute mark. I get the sense Zahler is striving for epic and lyrical, but sometimes, he pushes over into pretentious.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Swiss Army Man

If there was any doubt that Daniel Radcliffe could play a character other than Harry Potter, his portrayal of a talking, farting, water-logged corpse whose boner serves as a compass is a surefire way to shed that wizardly image.

Swiss Army Man (2016) has one of those premises that tells you this movie is either going to be very good or very bad. There is no middle ground. The story is so bizarre that only people who truly believed in it would have had the guts to even to attempt it. Those who seek the comfort and assurance of reliable, bland formula would not have dared.

Shipwrecked Hank (Paul Dano) is about to kill himself out of loneliness and despair when he sees a washed-up corpse (Radcliffe) on the beach. Using the corpse's explosive flatulence, Hank manages to reach to another shore, closer to potential rescue. But usefulness of the corpse, whom he dubs Manny, continues. Soon, Manny begins talking, and Hank begins teaching Manny, who has no memories, about what life has to offer, the good and the bad.

Read that summary again. Can you imagine that being the foundation of a "serious" movie? Well, Swiss Army Man is a funny movie, really funny at times. It's crude, in bad taste, awkward, uncomfortable, and kind of gross but elevated to the point of comic surreal. In its own way, it's rather moving.

Manny is almost child-like in his understanding, and Hank has to explain everything to him, including music, the bus, food, love, social norms of farting, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition (this is how they discover Manny's erection points the way to where they need to journey), masturbation, etc. Manny also can't move (His head tends to hang lopsided at a sickening angle), so his body goes through a ton of abuse that would have killed him if he weren't already dead.

He also farts. A lot. To the point Hank shoves a cork up his ass, but not before he made use of this talent. The sight of Hank riding Manny's body over the water like a jet ski or through the air like a rocket is outrageous to the point of glorious. Manny also serves as a freshwater spigot when Hank is thirsty, and Hank discovers he can put objects in Manny's mouth and hit him in the stomach to create a human pistol. The montage of the two slaughtering a host of wildlife using this method is a highlight.

But the movie is not a silly romp. Dano and Radcliffe play their roles completely straight-faced and sincerely, and there is genuine pathos to their relationship. The filmmakers have taken lowbrow subject matter - farting, gross out, necrophilia - and churned it into something with a higher meaning and emotional resonance. It's almost a coming of age story, figuring out your place in the world, and the connections we foster to escape the pain of loneliness.

The ending, where the pair return to civilization, stumbles a bit. It's not bad, and what's revealed fits; it just feels too long and too slow, as if the movie doesn't want to end and is stalling. That said, I can't think of another movie in which the timing of a fart played so critical a role to the climax. The premise might put you off, but if you can stomach it, you're in for a treat.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Rocks

Aerosmith broke out in 1975 with Toys in the Attic, but in 1976, they created their finest work. Rocks album stands as one of the best pieces of sleazy, bluesy hard rock of the decade. It's lean and mean while it slides, rocks, boogies, and grooves, never wasting a moment. The opening track, "Back in the Saddle" might be about a cowboy's one-night stand, but it could just as easily describe the band hitting its stride.

Actually, the cowboy imagery might not be too far off. On Rocks, Aerosmith comes off as a bunch of outlaws, vagabonds who cannot be tamed. Steven Tyler's sexually charged lyrics manage to come off as both funny and kind of dangerous. Plenty of groups sing about sex and women, but Aerosmith sound like they know about both firsthand with some suggestive lines.


"Mmm, come easy, go easy
Alright 'til the rising sun 
I'm calling all the shots tonight 
I'm like a loaded gun. 
Peelin' off my boots and chaps 
I'm saddle sore 
Four bits gets you time in the racks 
I scream for more."


The album rocks and drives, from the galloping intensity of "Back in the Saddle" and the sliding riffs of "Combination" to the speedy, almost metallic "Rats in the Cellar" and the massive "Lick and a Promise." These songs are loud, brash, and full of swagger and swing. Aerosmith is often compared to the Rolling Stones for their bluesy, gritty rock style, and it's a fitting comparison here. No song goes on too long, and the music has a sublime, laid-back confidence to it. These guys know how good they are, and they are going to drag you in. On "Get the Lead Out," Tyler sings:

"Do ya like good boogey

Like the real boogey woogie
Hear the juke box singin'
Get the dance hall swingin' 
Won't ya grab my shaker 
Got to meet your maker 
Mmm, get out the lead, get out of bed, get the lead out."


The second track, "Last Child," has a positively funky feel as Tyler sings about "My hot tail poon tang sweetheart" but also feel nostalgic when it slows down in the pre-chorus lines of "Home Sweet Home. Mama, take me home, sweet home" before diving right back into the groove with Tyler declaring, "I'm just a punk in the street."

Yet, Aerosmith also get tender or at least more emotional on other songs. The album closer, "Home Tonight," is a straight-up power ballad with a piano melody. For an album built on grit, sleaze, and sex, it's a surprisingly sincere and romantic song to go out on, but somehow, it works and makes for a great capper.  Rocks takes the listener on a rollicking ride and then brings you for a bit of quiet remembrance.

"So baby, don't let go 

Hold on real tight 
'Cause i'll be home tonight 
Tonight."


The band has never sounded better on a studio album. Tyler shrieks and howls like no other while still capable of a sleazy turn-of-phrase. Joe Perry remains one of hard rock's best guitarist while his fellow axman Brad Whitford provides appropriately heavy but swinging rhythms. Bassist Tom Hamilton and drummer Joey Kramer are also in top form.

Standout Songs
Back in the Saddle - The album opens on a high note from which it never dips.
Combination - Joe Perry sings and rocks an awesome riff.

Favorite Moment
That opening riff of "Combination" is just monstrous.

Album Cover
Five arranged diamonds, one for each member of the band, surrounded by black. Direct and polished, letting you know you can expect top-of-the-line quality music within.

Track Order
1) Back in the Saddle
2) Last Child
3) Rats in the Cellar
4) Combination
5) Sick as a Dog
6) Nobody's Fault
7) Get the Lead Out
8) Lick and a Promise
9) Home Tonight

Personnel
Steven Tyler - Vocals
Joe Perry - Lead Guitar
Brad Whitford - Rhythm Guitar
Tom Hamilton - Bass
Joey Kramer - Drums

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Painkiller


There's no shortage of candidates for the title of best Judas Priest album, but 1990's Painkiller might very well have them all beat. Arriving after the somewhat cool receptions toward Turbo and Ram It Down, Painkiller finds the iconic group back at the top of the heavy metal heap where they belong.

Unlike groups such as AC/DC and Motorhead, acts comfortable sticking with their trademark sound, Judas Priest always pushed themselves to grow and try something new. No two of their albums sound alike; they are part of an ongoing evolution that is Judas Priest. You can listen to their work chronologically and chart the progress.

Painkiller finds the band showing all those thrash metal bands how it's done. Priest plays faster, heavier, darker, and more aggressively than ever before, and the result is an album that sinks its hooks in you immediately and never lets go. The only thing you can do is hang on for the ride.

"Faster than a bullet
Terrifying scream
Enraged and full of anger
He's half man and half machine."

Even the "slower" numbers such as "Metal Meltdown" and the instrumental "Battle Hymn" feel less like breathers and more like ominous eyes of the storm: with any second, the tempest can begin raging again. Other songs have atmospheric flourishes - the thunder of "Night Crawler," the industrial sound effects of "Between the Hammer and the Anvil," and the keyboards of "A Touch of Evil" - that don't overwhelm or distract but instead give those numbers a dark, delicious flavor.

Lyrically, Painkiller has a strong fantasy feel. The title tracks refers to a super hero savior of mankind, "Night Crawler" warns us to "beware the beast in black," and in "A Touch of Evil," Halford sings of a "dark angel" who "mesmerizes" and "put me in a trance." Priest couples that with songs about heavy metal: "Leather Rebel," "Metal Meltdown," "Between the Hammer and the Anvil." "Metal Meltdown" in particular sounds like it's describing the most metal show ever.

"Something's calling
In the night
Electric madness
Roars in sight
Heat is rising
Blazing fast
Hot and evil
Feel the blast
Out of control
About to explode
It's coming at ya."

Painkiller marks the debut of drummer Scott Travis, who's been with the band ever since. He opens up the album with the thunderous title track, setting the tone for the whole enterprise. Some drummers will sacrifice technique for aggression or vice versa, but Travis' playing is both intense and complex.

Travis seems to push the rest of the band to keep up with him, in a good way. The guitar tandem of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing had never been heavier, and their duel lead attack matches breakneck speed with bone-crunching tone and technical wizardry. Their riffs drive furiously, and their solos erupt. Ian Hill joins in with his reliable bass, and Halford, what else is there to say about Rob Halford, the Metal God?

Halford has never sounded better. His voice truly is an instrument all its own, cutting through the fury around him. He hits those shrieking high notes, muscles alongside those heavy riffs, and lends those somewhat silly lyrics (a staple of Priest) a power and conviction few can match. You'll follow this guy into battle, preferably on a motorcycle, to defend heavy metal.

One shot at glory
Driving hard and seeing red
Destiny calls me
One shot of fire
One shot at glory.

Standout Songs
Painkiller - This song is a battering ram. It opens the album with an assault.
Hell Patrol - My personal favorite off the album.
Nightcrawler - The crackling of thunder to open gives this song a dark, eerie touch.
One Shot at Glory - An epic climax to the whole album.

Favorite Moments
The end of "Battle Hymn" as it transitions into "One Shot at Glory." As the guitar begins building up, you'll feel like you've just clawed through a hard-fought battle, victory is at hand, and now is the time for the final charge. 

Album Cover
A metallic angel rides across an apocalyptic landscape on a demonic motorcycle. It's captures everything ridiculously awesome about metal in one image. It's over-the-top, fantastical, and cool.

Track Order
1) Painkiller
2) Hell Patrol
3) All Guns Blazing
4) Leather Rebel
5) Metal Meltdown
6) Night Crawler
7) Between the Hammer and the Anvil
8) A Touch of Evil
9) Battle Hymn
10) One Shot at Glory

Personnel
Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitars
K.K. Downing - Guitars
Ian Hill - Bass
Scott Travis - Drums
Don Airey - Keyboard (on "A Touch of Evil")