Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Eve's Bayou

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The past lives on, breathing alongside the present.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Due to the Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, George. I will stay scared.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Sabotage

The cracks in the ship's hull have appeared.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

We Need to Talk About Kevin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 9, 2017

1916

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sabbath Bloody Sabbath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Gasman

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

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

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

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

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

Kill the Day

A junkie steals a bag from a locker, spends time in jail, tries to go clean, and reflects on his childhood in Lynne Ramsay's 18-minute short Kill the Day (1996).

The junkie is James Gallagher (James Ramsay), and it's through him we see the world around him: grim, indifferent, and cold. He has a haunted, cadaverous face, filled with lines and shadows, and Ramsay shows them in many closeups that also allow us to see his mind working. For some reason, he reminded me of Daniel Day-Lewis as Christy Brown in My Left Foot, perhaps because of how thin Gallagher looks and for the number of shots of him lying in bed, looking desperate and helpless.

Ramsay keeps her camera close to Gallagher. At times, the short feels like it could be a documentary. It's an intimate portrayal. Even the flashback of Gallagher as a boy frolicking in a field with some friends has the quality of a home movie. The film feels gritty and immediate.

Elsewhere, Ramsay films Gallagher in ways to suggest he is trapped: inside a bathroom stall, the blank walls of his cell, his face against the glass of a window, etc. We see him on the floor or lying on his bed, showing how low he has sunk in the grips of addiction and recovery. Everywhere he goes, he's confined.

Curiously, we never see Gallagher actually take drugs (unless you count smoking cigarettes). Perhaps such a scene wasn't needed. We can already see what effect they've had on his life. Maybe such a scene would have caused to judge him and disapprove of him. Ramsay does not ask us to judge Gallagher, only to understand him and see how the world treats him.

Small Deaths

The debut of director Lynne Ramsay, Small Deaths (1996) is an 11-minute short that captures three events in the life of Anne Marie. It's a dramatic, mini-anthology that centers on the same character over the course of many years .

As a little girl in "Ma and Da," Anne Marie (Lynne Ramsay Jr., the director's niece) watches as her mother helps her father get ready for a night out at the pub. In "Holy Cow," the teenaged Anne Marie (Genna Gillan) and her sister play in a wheat field when they stumble on a dying cow. By the time she's a young woman in "Joke," Anne Marie (Anne-Marie Kennedy), has a boyfriend whom she follows upstairs to an apartment, not knowing what she'll find.

You could call this a coming of age story since we literally see Anne Marie come of age over the course of the film, but more importantly, she learns hard lessons in each of the segments about how cruel people can be and the consequences of actions. For its short running length, Small Deaths is unbelievably ambitious.

Ramsay's direction is assured and polished as she captures some of the grittiness and despair she'd film later in Ratcatcher. Her style is economic and says a lot visually without too much dialogue to explain everything. She uses a lot of static shots and overhead angles to illustrate how isolated and vulnerable Anne Marie is while showcasing her environment, whether it be the carpeted living room of her parents' living room, the open wheat fields, or the grimy stairwell of a strange apartment complex.

She also gives us some nicely layered shots that showcase the depth of the frame and combine the key elements of the scene. I especially like the shot of Anne Marie's face in the foreground with her parents in the background as her mother combs her father's hair. In "Joke," when the reveal is made, Ramsay films the other characters in warped wide angle shots that distorts their mocking faces into something almost inhuman.
By the end, we understand why everything has affected Anne Marie and how it has impacted her.

Ratcatcher

I never expected to watch an English-language movie with the subtitles on because I thought the characters spoke a different language. Such is the impenetrability of the Scottish accent.

Ratcatcher (1999), written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, might be the grimmest and grimiest slice-of-life, coming-of-age movie I've ever seen. It follows James (William Eadie), a 12-year-old boy who lives in Glasgow during the 1973 garbage strike, so rubbish and filth fill the streets. As the movie opens, James gets into a play fight with Ryan, a boy about his age, in the dirty canal near their homes, and Ryan drowns.

Immediately, the movie lets us know it is not going to be cutesy or sentimental. Ratcatcher avoids the obvious, trite arcs the story could have followed. James finds no escape or release (at least not permanently), and while he learns some important lessons, they aren't especially useful ones, more like realizations of how much his life sucks and probably won't get better.

James' family is poor. They live in a cramped, messy apartment, awaiting word that they can move to a nice new home in the countryside. In the meantime, James' mother (Mandy Mathews) combs lice from her son's scalp, his father (Tommy Flanagan) is usually drunk, and he doesn't get along with his sisters. The isolated James finds neither warmth nor comfort from his family and keeping secret his involvement in Ryan's death doesn't help.

It's a downer of a movie, but it's not completely grim. Ramsay mines some humanity from the bleakness. James finds friendship with Margaret Anne (Leanne Mullen), an older girl the local teenage gang bullies for sexual favors, and James even picks the lice out of her hair. They end up bathing together, but it's not really sexual (even though James' first sexual encounter is with her and it is extremely uncomfortable, for them and the audience); it's more innocent than that: they treat each other like people and show affection.

Ramsay also include some humor, albeit in an understated, sometimes depressing manner, the kind of material you laugh at in spite of yourself. After Ryan's mother (Jackie Quinn) breaks down in tears, she gives James the new shoes she purchased for her son the day he died. He complains loudly they don't fit. The cruel innocence of childhood.

Except for a couple of instances, Ramsay shoots the movie with the realism of a documentary, very down-to-earth and in-your-face with the squalor and desperation. We're the right there neck-and-neck with the characters, and the effect is discomforting.

Notable exceptions occur when James takes the bus to the homes under construction. He roams through the property and climbs through a window a wheat field where he can run unhindered in the warm glow.

Another time occurs when local boy Kenny (John Miller) ties his pet rat Snowball to a balloon and sets him free to float to the moon. The film becomes surreal in this sequence, showing the little rodent actually going to the moon, where several rats already live and scurry about. It's a jarring image in an otherwise grounded movie. I'm still torn over whether it's a nice moment of brightness or out of place.

Did I like the movie? I don't know. I admired the craft and the performances, and I wanted to see it through, never bored. It has moments of great power and insight, but I can't say I want to re-visit it anytime soon. It deals in uncomfortable truths.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Baby Driver

If you have the time, check out this video on YouTube by Every Frame a Painting. It breaks down why Edgar Wright is a marvelous visual director (I also recommend the other videos on the channel if you're interested in learning more about film grammar and techniques), and you'll see how Wright cinematically tells jokes and reveals character, which he does a lot of in Baby Driver (2017).

Baby Driver is the latest from Wright, who also wrote the film. It'd make for an interesting double feature with Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, if only because it plays like a quirky, comedic variation of a similar setup: an expert getaway driver gets in over his head with some nasty crooks on a job that goes wrong, has a complicated history with a mentor figure, and romances a sweet, innocent girl.

The driver is Baby (Ansel Elgort). The nasty crooks are Bats (Jamie Foxx, who has never played a more despicable character), Buddy (Jon Hamm), and Darling (Eiza Gonzelez). The mentor figure doubles as the guy organizing the job, Doc (Kevin Spacey). The sweet girl is a waitress, Debora (Lilly James who is charming in an underwritten role).

The quirkiness stems from Baby himself. An accident in his youth that killed his parents also gave him tinnitus, and to drown out the noise, he listens to music all the time. Literally, all the time, even when he's driving, being chased by police, or hearing instructions from Doc. When he's forced to carjack an old woman, he doesn't speed away until he finds a song on the radio he likes (then he tosses the old lady her purse and apologizes).

Baby synchronizes everything he does to music, even delaying the start of one robbery to start a song over. Remember that scene in Shaun of the Dead when Shaun and his friends fight off a zombie as Queen's "Don't Stop Me Now" plays on the jukebox? It's like that, except through most of the movie. In fact, another Queen song pops up in Baby Driver, "Brighton Rock." He also listens to funk and soul music (I love how the movie doesn't play the same songs we've heard in other movies a hundred times already).

Other jokes are more overtly silly. Early on, Bats instructs a cohort to buy Michael Myers masks for a job and gets exasperated when the guy turns up not with the blank visage of the famed slasher but Austin Powers masks. When told he was supposed to find the mask of the killer from Halloween, the guy goes, "You mean Jason, right?"

The script falters in the last act some. Doc can't seem to decide whether he's fond of Baby or if he just considers him a tool to exploit, and the earlier quirkiness gives way to more or less straight up action and revenge.

Baby Drivers moves fast with energy and excitement, and performances are good all around. The action scenes are exceptionally well done; I felt the impact every time the car crashed into something and my heart was racing.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Career Politicians

If you type "career politicians" into Google, 390,000 results appear. On the first page, I found links to stories, webpages, and articles such as "Charlie Daniels: Our System was not Designed for Career Politicians," "Career Politicians on the Rise: How to Stem the Tide," and "Senator: Term Limits would Make Career Politicians Obsolete."

Apparently, you don't want to be called a career politician. Career politician brings to mind images of corrupt, political fat cats who exploit the system, contribute nothing to society, and leach off the rest of us; they are the elected officials more concerned with living large and keeping their jobs than helping people or bettering the country.

I don't like the term "career politician." I think it is a lazy, cynical catch-all term that serves as a knee-jerk substitute for real arguments about the accomplishments and failures of our elected leaders. It's much easier to denounce someone as a "career politician" than it is to examine at their record. Plus, some of the loudest voices condemning "career politicians" are people who also could be considered career politicians or at the very least are deeply embedded in politics.

Are there lazy, do-nothing politicians who leach off their positions, only serve themselves, and spend more time campaigning and raising money than they do fulfilling their jobs? Absolutely, but we're not getting anywhere labeling everyone as such.

I don't like the term "career politician" because it equates good politicians - those who are dedicated, serve with integrity, and push for policy that helps people - with bad politicians - the lazy, insulated fat cats who treat their positions not as a calling to serve others but to enrich themselves without giving back.

If you don't like a politician because of their political beliefs, fine. If you don't like them for their voting record, fine. If you don't like them for the statements they've made, fine. But please, don't dislike them because they're "career politicians."

Politics is the art of the compromise and negotiation; writing legislation and understanding how the law works; balancing competing interests, groups, and goals; and knowing how to work with and communicate with people, whether they are colleagues in your caucus, your opponents across the aisle, representatives of various organizations and nations, or most importantly, your constituents.

It's a job that requires many skills and traits: intelligence, diligence, dedication, hard work, communication, leadership, and vision. If someone will all this decides to dedicate their life to public service as an elected official, by all means, we should encourage them to run for office.

When good people and talented individuals avoid office, who do you think is left to take the reigns and make the decisions that impact us all?

Frankly, everyone in America, all of us, should think of ourselves as "career politicians." The United States is a democracy, and for it to work, we need to participate. Acting as if politics is somehow beneath us accomplishes nothing. I'm not saying everyone should seek office, but stay involved and be informed.

Read newspapers, lots of them, including the ones whose editorial pages you disagree with. Stay up-to-date on the issues impacting your community and the nation. When you see or hear news that sounds too good or too bad to be true, research it; find out whether it is. Attend your city council meetings. Write or phone you representatives and senators about the issues that concern you. Organize or participate in a march or assembly for a cause you believe in.

And vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. Vote. But please do so in an informed manner. Know the issues and candidates. Understand not just your position, but the other side. At least consider why someone might want to vote against you.

Yes, politics is frustrating. Yes, it can be disappointing. Yes, it's hard. That's the price if we want our voice to count. It's better than the alternative, and for it to work, we must subject politicians, or anyone seeking power, to the strictest of scrutiny and hold them accountable for everything they do and say.

Those who don't want to put up with that, who feel their position is above that level of criticism and transparency, the ones seeking individual reward, those career politicians can get lost.

But those who put up with it, the ones who meet the ethical and moral standards we demand, the ones who value service over reward and the people over themselves, we should want them as career politicians.

British Steel

British Steel was for me, and for many "heavy metal maniacs," my gateway drug to the awesomeness of Judas Priest.

While comparably heavier and more aggressive than other bands' output at the time, earlier Priest albums such as Sin After and Stained Class can be heard more as hard rock, but with British Steel, Rob Halford and company hoisted the heavy metal banner and have been Defenders of the Faith ever since (sorry, I couldn't resist).

In fact, Halford took his iconic nickname from British Steel. "Metal Gods" might be about robots revolting against their human masters and enslaving humanity, but like a lot of Priest songs, it can be read as a celebration of heavy metal fandom: rebellious, anti-authoritarian, and all powerful (the added metallic sounds of hammers striking gives the song a cool industrial edge).

"From techno seeds we first planted,
Evolved a mind of its own.
Marching in the streets,
Dragging iron feet."

A spirit of rebellion infuses the album, a desire to break free and defy social norms. The two big hits of the album - "Breaking the Law" and "Living After Midnight" - along with "You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise" embrace that wild spirit and youthful vigor. Forget rules and all those old folks keeping you down; go out and have a good time.

"I grow sick and tired of the same old lies.
Might look a little young.
So what's wrong?
You don't have to be old to be wise."

Compared to those earlier albums and later albums such as Painkiller, British Steel finds Priest slowing down the tempo but ramping up the melody and heaviness. Only the opener, "Rapid Fire" which charges out of the gate, and the blazing race-to-the-finish closer "Steeler" could be considered speed metal, but the other songs aren't the sludge-like marches of Black Sabbath; they have more rhythm and are catchy. You can easily hum or sing along. Imagine AC/DC with a heavier crunch.

Take "Grinder." Its rhythm is simple, direct, and filled with breaks, but each palm-muted chord of the main feels like something monstrous taking a bite out of the listener. For a slow song, it has a menacing edge.

"Grinder
Looking for meat.
Grinder
Wants you to eat." 

British Steel is not the most technically sophisticated of Judas Priest albums, and the band's commercial aspirations are apparent, but in the end, it's not about what you do but how you do it. On British Steel, Judas Priest plays chugging, headbanging heavy metal, and they do it splendidly.

Standout Songs
"Metal Gods" - The lick that follows the chorus is sweet.
"Grinder" - Slow, moody, and dangerous.
"Steeler" - An epic race to the end of the album.

Favorite Moment
During "Breaking the Law," Halford yells, "You don't know what it's like!" Police sirens and breaking glass follow. It's chaos and anarchy, and I love it.

Album Cover
A hand clutches a razor blade. So much cool suggested by one simple image: metal, danger, living on the edge, sleekness.

Track Order
1) Rapid Fire
2) Metal Gods
3) Breaking the Law
4) Grinder
5) United
6) You Don't Have to Be Old to Be Wise
7) Living After Midnight
8) The Rage
9) Steeler

Personnel
Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitar
K.K. Downing - Guitar
Ian Hill - Bass
Dave Holland - Drums 

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Bad Magic

To the end, Motörhead was Motörhead and Lemmy was Lemmy.

Released in August 2015, Bad Magic proved to be the final album of  Motörhead. By the end of the year, Lemmy Kilmister, the group's incomparable and legendary frontman, died, ending the band's 40-year run of hard-rocking and aggressive heavy metal.

Health problems plagued Lemmy in his final years, and perhaps his own mortality was on his mind as he penned such songs as "Victory or Die," "Till the End," and "When the Sky Comes Looking for You." Even as he stares death in the face, Lemmy exhibited no regrets and no remorse about who he is.

"In my life, the times have changed. 
I'm still the man I was.
I don't want to hear your fairy tales.
All I know is who I am. 
I'll never let you down,
The last one you can trust until the end, 
Until the end.

The choice to cover the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" might seems like an odd choice to include on the album, but the eternal rebellious and bad boy spirit of the track could just as well as describe Lemmy. Plus, Lemmy always insisted Motörhead was a rock n roll band, and he appreciated the greats of the genre, including the likes of Stones, the Beatles, and Little Richard. Interestingly, Lemmy forgoes his trademark raspy croak and actually sings on it.

Elsewhere, Bad Magic is what we'd expect from a latter-day Motörhead album: loud, brash, heavy, fast, and catchy. Even as he winds down, Lemmy retains his no-frills, tough-guy persona and remains defiant against the world, singing songs with such titles as "Teach Them How to Bleed," "Tell Me Who to Kill," and "Choking on Your Screams." Motörhead wants no pity and shows no mercy.

"Tell the world a good word, catch me if you can
Better face it all now, show 'em what you need.
Let 'em come. Let 'em come.
Teach them how to bleed."

Vocally, Lemmy sounds tired. Not enough to scuttle the music, but it's noticeable and forgivable. Fortunately, guitarist Phil Campbell and drummer Mikkey Dee, not mention his own bass playing, pick him up; they still play loud and fast. The production is smooth and crisp, and the songs follow the expected three chords and rocking approach. The album doesn't overstay its welcome.

Bad Magic is a fine album, as found of a farewell as we can expect from the iconic group. Even as they pass into the sunset, Motörhead still sounds like Motörhead and as strong as ever.

Standout Songs
"Teach Them How to Bleed" - Just a bad ass fight song.
"Till the End" - Motörhead slows down, but it's a poignant number.
"Tell Me Who to Kill" - See what I said about "Teach Them How to Bleed."
"Sympathy For the Devil" - A classic Stones number sounds cool as a metal track.

Favorite Moment
The chorus of "Till the End." It's defiant and sad, heavy but tender in its own way.

Album Cover
The band and album name in white letters stenciled across a black background around the Snaggletooth logo. No frills and direct, like the band itself.

Track Order
1) Victory or Die
2) Thunder and Lightning
3) Fire Storm Hotel
4) Shoot Out All Your Lights
5) The Devil
6) Electricity
7) Evil Eye
8) Teach Them How to Bleed
9) Till the End
10) Tell Me Who to Kill
11) Choking on Your Screams
12) When the Sky Comes Looking for You
13) Sympathy for the Devil

Personnel
Lemmy Kilmister - Vocals and Bass
Phil Campbell - Guitar
Mikkey Dee - Drums

Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Ascent

Two Soviet partisans during World War II become cut off from their unit, struggle to survive the winter Belarusian countryside, and end up captured by the Germans.

That is the entire plot of The Ascent (1977), the final film of director Larisa Shepitko, who died two years later in a car accident. Like Wings, it is a stark, black-and-white drama, but instead of nestled twenty years after the Great Patriotic War, The Ascent is buried face first in the grueling conflict and misery of the fighting and marching.

I don't if I've seen a movie that better captures the frigid cold and squalor of winter. This is not an adventurous, gung-ho war picture. There are a couple firefights with the Germans, but the biggest problems facing Sotnikov (Boris Plotnikov) and Rybak (Vladimir Gostyuhkin) are the freezing temperatures, lack of food and proper winter gear (the former doesn't have gloves), and the exhaustion.

The screen becomes so white at times, we can't tell where the sky begins and the ground starts, and our protagonists look like black specks against an overwhelming force of nature. Early on, Sotnikov is wounded in the leg, and the two men drag themselves across the frozen ground, snow coating their faces and soaking through their coats. In close ups, we can see the ice clinging to their beards (clearly screaming agony as Ian Anderson would say).

The close up of the face is a favorite shot of Shepitko. Using harsh, naturalistic lighting (at times, the film feels like a documentary), we see the hard, sad faces of the characters and their sunken-in eyes, and many shots, especially of the increasingly despairing Sotnikov, are haunting in their bleakness. So much pain and suffering on the human face. No one looks very glamorous. The film has a strong authentic streak. It feels very real and harsh.

Curiously, Sheptiko elects to not show everything all the time. Several sequences have a limited, hunkered-down point of view, like the men's fight with a German patrol. The Germans remain far off in the distance, tiny scattering figures, but often, we stay behind a snow mound with the injured Sotnikov, and like him, we can only listen in tense anticipation as the enemy moves in closer.

Later, the men stop in the cabin of Demchikha (Lyudmila Polyakova), a Russian woman with young children. She hides them in her attic when Germans approach. The camera lays in the straw with the men, the only view coming from a slit in the floor below. We listen as the figures below talk, only occasionally catching a glimpse as they walk across the opening, and we wonder when or if they're going to look up through it.

The second half of the movie shifts gears as the men, plus Demchikha, are taken into captivity by the Germans and interrogated by a police collaborator, Portnov (Anatoly Solonitsyn), who despite never raising his voice or doing any physical himself (or even espousing any pro-Nazi beliefs) manages  to come off as an utterly despicable, manipulative, and evil figure. Then, the trials move from the purely physical to the spiritual and emotional as the men are tempted with offers to betray their comrades.

The Ascent moves slowly (and probably could have trimmed some minutes here and there), but it moves to a dark, bleak ending that raises two of the hardest questions about warfare: what is the price of survival and is it worth it? The Ascent suggests the price is one's soul. What you do to survive can never be washed away.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Wings

I don't know of any other movies like WingsWings (1966) is a post-World War II drama set in the Soviet Union, where it was produced, about a woman who served as a pilot during the war but now struggles in her civilian life. And it was directed by a woman, Larisa Shepitko, who died in a car crash at the age of 41 after demonstrating enormous talent in a handful of films.

There are many movies about war veterans struggling to adjust to life out of uniform, such as Coming Home and even First Blood, but I don't know of any others from a Soviet perspective, and I don't know of any other prominent female directors from that period in the Soviet Union.

Shot in black and white, Wings follows Nadezhda Petrukhina (Mayya Bulgakova), who served with distinction during the Great Patriotic War in the Soviet Air Force. Twenty-plus years later, she's the headmistress of a vocational school. The students don't respect her, her daughter Tanya (Zhanna Bolotova) won't introduce her to her new husband, and overall, Nadezhda feels unfulfilled, out of place, and unappreciated.

Her time in the military taught her the value of obedience, duty, discipline, and sacrifice. When Tanya suggests resigning from the school and letting someone else take over, Nadezhda is almost insulted by the notion. "I never even knew such words as these: 'Let someone else do it'."

Less of a narrative than a character study, Wings shows Nadezhda in different incidents that depict her dilemma while inter-cutting the occasional memory from her time as a pilot. She works hard and makes many sacrifices, but the younger generation just doesn't seem to get her. When she asks one disobedient student why he acts so arrogantly, he coldly replies, "Because I despise you."

The black-and-white photography is very fitting. Nadezhda lives in a stark, cold world, and Shepitko's camera hangs close on her face, so we can sense all her anger, shame, boredom, confusion, loneliness, and defiance. Many scenes contain long takes, and inside the confines of her office or her apartment, Nadezhda looks cramped and boxed in by a world that is pushing her out.

One of the most poignant moments in the film occurs when Nadeshda sits in a museum and overhears a group of students on tour. Her name is mentioned by the guide as a local hero, but the student's don't care. They move on, not realizing how close to living history they really are. Nadezhda examines her picture on the wall and realizes that's all she is: a forgotten, overlooked relic.

The only reprieve occurs when she thinks on her time in the service. She imagines flying through the clouds and remembers her lost lover Mitya (Leonid Dyachkov), a fellow pilot who perished in the war.

These scenes occur almost entirely from Nadezhda's point-of-view, giving the film a subjective touch, and instead of making us feel trapped, it makes the viewer feel free. We gaze into Mitya's loving face, walk through the open fields, and soar through the sky, and we understand why she prefers past glories to present indignities.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Billion Dollar Brain

Billion Dollar Brain (1967) feels contradictory. For the third time, Michael Caine returns as Harry Palmer, the deadpan secret agent in thick glasses meant as a realistic alternative to James Bond, and yet the main plot wouldn't feel that far out of place in a 007 adventure.

Some of the elements of the story - a supercomputer dictating policy and the power of a private corporation - feel more relevant today than they did in the 1960s, but the villain's henchmen are cowboys. They wear ten-gallon hats and denim shirts, even as they run around his secret, hi-tech lair.

Meanwhile, the director is Ken Russell, who would go on to make the likes of Altered States, Lair of the White Worm, The Devils, and Tommy based on The Who album. Russell is a strange choice for a hard-boiled espionage thriller; he's better known for his hallucinatory, surreal, bizarre, and at times hysterical style.

That is not to say Billion Dollar Brain is a bad movie. Far from it. It's a lively, energetic entry in the series, Caine brings the goods as the cynical and reluctant agent, the emphasis remains more on characters than on hi-tech gadgetry and action, and it maintains the droll sense of humor of Funeral in London. The plot feels like it's moving a little too close for James Bond territory, but while he might be an unorthodox choice, Russell gives the film a taste of his distinctive touch.

Palmer is out of the British Secret Service but of course ends up drawn back in. This time, he goes to Finland, helping an old friend, Leo, (Karl Malden) smuggle some eggs and being in drawn into a scheme to infiltrate an organization run by a rabid anti-Communist Texas oil tycoon (Ed Begley). Also around is Anya (Francoise Dorleac), who is in a relationship with the married Leo but puts the moves on Harry. The eccentric Colonel Stok (Oscar Holmolka), the Soviet intelligence officer, also pops in to warn Harry about the danger he's putting himself in.

In Funeral in Berlin, director Guy Hamilton brought a workman's touch. He wasn't flashy or showing off. He focused on telling the story. He tended to keep his distance, concerned more with being clear and covering the terrain, so the viewer could follow all the characters even as they committed various double dealings.

By contrast, Russell is more stylish, giving the film a different kind of unsubtle energy. He uses more close ups of the actors' faces, and when we are introduced to Begley's General Midwinter at a barbecue in a Texas oilfield, he stands in front of a tall flame, next to his company's logo that looks suspiciously like Nazi Germany's Reichsadler (the eagle coat of arms).

Russell moves his camera around more as well, and the film feels more frenetic as a result. The aforementioned oil field cookout is shot with a spinning camera in a sea of dancing bodies, and it feels like we're descending into madness. Elsewhere, a tense encounter between Harry and Anya is captured with a long, unbroken take; the camera weaves, bobs, and slants as Harry's world becomes increasingly unsteady.

Billion Dollar Brain still has a light touch and several funny moments and lines, usually the result of Caine's deadpan cynicism and snarky quips; the Finnish setting is suitably cold and wintry while other locations, such Midwinter's lair, are sleeker, more technological, and imposing; and the plot is filled with the expected double crosses, twists, and surprise reveals.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Funeral in Berlin

How is it I'm only now learning the 60s produced a series of movies starring Michael Caine as a British spy? I guess every time I start to think I know everything, something comes along to demonstrate how little I know.

In Funeral in Berlin (1966), Caine plays Harry Palmer, a bespectacled secret agent who first appeared unnamed in the spy novels of Len Deighton (the name Harry Palmer originated in the adaptation of The Ipcress File, also starring Caine). Palmer exists as a counterpoint to the more flamboyant James Bond, which is ironic because Funeral in Berlin was directed by Guy Hamilton, who directed a number of 007 pictures, and produced by Harry Saltzman, the longtime Bond producer.

Unlike the smooth, romanticized Bond, Palmer is more grounded, more of a working-class stiff. He doesn't use hi-tech gadgets, he doesn't get into very many fights, and he prefers anonymous suits to fancy tuxedos. In some ways, he's a glorified bureaucrat for his majesty's secret service. He deals more in paperwork, forged documents, false names, hidden identities, and clandestine meetings in dark alleyways than the cloak-and-dagger adventures of Ian Fleming's agent.

In Funeral in Berlin, Palmer is dispatched to Berlin to help coordinate the defection of a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, Colonel Stok (Oscar Homolka). Berlin is still is a divided a city, and getting Stok across the Wall won't be easy, assuming of course, he's genuine and not up to something else as Palmer suspects.

Other prominent characters in the story include Johnny Vulkan (Paul Hubschmid), an old associate of Harry's and now in charge of British Intelligence operations in Berlin; Samantha Steel (Eva Renzi), a gorgeous model who so willingly spends the night with Palmer that he is immediately suspicious; Hallam (Hugh Burden), the documents man for British Intelligence; and Kreutzman (Gunter Meisner), a West German criminal who will smuggle anyone over the wall for the right price.

Funeral in Berlin is not an action movie, although it opens with a stunt that might not be out of place in a Bond movie as a famous musician escapes to the West using a construction crane. Who can Palmer trust and what's everyone's real agenda are just a couple of questions. Needless to say, no one and nothing are what they seem, and before long, Palmer is in over his head, trying to stay one step ahead of everyone else.

But the movie is not dry and dark. At times, it's rather funny. Stok is quite eccentric and always laughing at the hoops he forces Palmer and British Intelligence to jump through (he initiates their first meeting by pretending to have Palmer arrested and is rather amused by it.). Meanwhile, Palmer's undercover identity is that of a lingerie salesman, and one of his meetings with a contact occurs at a drag queen cabaret.

At the center of all this is Caine's performance as Palmer. It would be wrong to think of him as a square, but he's not especially dashing or emotional, although he frequently clashes with his superiors and is not shy about expressing his opinion, often in a cynical, deadpan manner. He's a cold operative who keeps his feelings in check. He insists he's not a coldblooded killer (he doesn't seem to like guns), and even when he gets angry, he stays in control. He is cerebral more than anything else, but he can fight when he has to.

In a way, he's the straight man of this unfolding drama. Everyone else is running around, double-crossing each other, pulling off elaborate schemes, and trying to kill people, Palmer is in the middle of everything, just trying to do his job.

The film was shot on location in Berlin and makes good use of its authentic locations. Berlin is a city of hip clubs and fancy hotels but also barbed wire, armed guards, barriers, and constant surveillance along with dilapidated warehouses and old ruins. It's a beautiful city with a lot of history, but it's also a place of danger for a British spy.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Defenders of the Faith

If Defenders of the Faith (1984) maintained the momentum of its first three songs, it would be my favorite Judas Priest album, hands down.

"Freewheel Burning" is one of the great opening tracks, by Priest or anyone, and it contains one of my favorite guitar solos. When someone describes music as face-melting, this is what they're referring to. It's just so good, so cool, I want to crazy when I hear it.

"Jawbreaker" is a textbook display of how to build intensity and a sense of danger in a song, and "Rock Hard Ride Free" is epic. It soars. When I'm wearing headphones and this song comes on, I swear it feels like the speakers are about to explode. My reaction to these songs is purely visceral and emotional; I can't break it down intellectually or explain it. I just feel them and react.

"No denyin'. We're going against the grain.
So defiant, they'll never put us down.
Rock Hard! Ride Free!
All day, all night.
Rock Hard! Ride Free!
All your life."

After those three songs, Defenders of the Faith hovers around the level of pretty good, but hey, "pretty good" by Judas Priest is still better than the best of most other bands. Priest's brand of speed metal displays the technical chops, blazing speed, and heavy, palm-muted crunch we expect from the guitar tandem of Glenn Tipton and K.K. Downing with bassist Ian Hill. Singer Rob Halford remains at the top of his game, shrieking and howling like no one else. I don't know how he can sing as fast as he does.

"Look before you leap has never been the way we keep. Our road is free.
Charging to the top and never give in never stop the way to be.
Hold on to the lead with all your will and concede
You'll find there's life with victory on high"

Those first three songs, plus "The Sentinel," are ridiculously fast-paced for a mainstream metal release. The other songs are somewhat slower, more mid-temp anthems with staccato-based rhythms such as "Eat Me Alive" and "Some Heads Are Gonna Roll." Even the "slow" ballad-like "Night Comes Down" is not a sappy love song, even though it's kind of about a lost love. Priest makes it sound tough.

It all leads to the marching two-part beat of "Heavy Duty" and "Defenders of the Faith" that, like "Rock N Roll Ain't Noise Pollution" on AC/DC's Back in Black, feels like a climactic statement of purpose and a summation of who the band is. The band's religion is heavy metal, and they are the clergy who will keep the faith and summon all metalheads and headbangers together.

"We'll rise inside ya till the power splits your head.
We're gonna rock ya till your metal hunger's fed.
Let's all join forces.
Rule with an iron hand
And prove to all the world
Metal rules the land."

Standout Songs
"Freewheel Burning" - Just an excellent, racing opener.
"Jawbreaker" - A crushing, building track.
"Rock Hard Ride Free" - I dare you to not sing along to the chorus.

Favorite Moment
That solo on "Freewheel Burning." Hearing it, I feel like I'm in the front seat of a blazing car, kicking it into high gear and accelerating beyond all control.

Album Cover
A transformer-like, colorful, mechanized beast on treads. If this a weapon we get to use to defend heavy metal, then sign me up.

Track Order
1) Freewheel Burning
2) Jawbreaker
3) Rock Hard Ride Free
4) The Sentinel
5) Love Bites
6) Eat Me Alive
7) Some Heads Are Gonna Roll
8) Night Comes Down
9) Heavy Duty
10) Defenders of the Faith

Personnel
Rob Halford - Vocals
Glenn Tipton - Guitar
K.K. Downing - Guitar
Ian Hill - Bass
Dave Holland - Drums 

Junior Bonner

I have never been to a rodeo and have no strong inclination to go to one. Maybe if some friends invite me along, I'd consider it, but I'm not going out of my way for one. If you enjoy rodeos, that's cool, but just remember my preference as you read this review.

From director Sam Peckinpah, Junior Bonner (1972) tells the story of Junior "JR" Bonner (Steve McQueen), a once great rodeo rider whose best days are behind him. The next stop on tour brings him to his hometown of Prescott, Arizona. There, his brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) is selling the family property to develop a trailer park, and his parents Ace (Robert Preston) and Elvira (Ida Lupino) are estranged. Ace has plans to head to Australia for his latest crazy scheme.

This is another strange one for Peckinpah. While the cowboy imagery and the celebration of Junior's rugged individualism in the face of encroaching modern capitalism feel par the course, no one dies horribly, and the characters even enjoy some happiness in the face of their uncertain futures. It's odd, but the best words I can think of to describe the film are charming and easygoing.

The plot is rather perfunctory. There are no unexpected twists or turns, and no surprise revelations are offered that reshape everything you thought you knew about the characters. They are who they say they are: for all their faults, honest, upfront folks. Even Curly, who might have been more of a villain in another movie, is less of a greedy sellout and more someone who sees where things are headed and wants to position his family so they are financially secure, including JR and Ace, the wild and irresponsible ones of the family.

The rodeo elements are fairly minimal, at least in terms of actual screen time (not surprising considering the goal is to ride a bull for eight seconds, and even with Peckinpah employing his trademark slow motion, these sequences pass quickly). Much more time is devoted to the family dynamics and interaction with the others in town, including the owner of the mean bull JR wants to beat (Ben Johnson), a fellow bull rider (Bill McKinney), and a girl who catches JR's eye (Barbara Leigh).

Performances are mostly good. It's a little hard to buy McQueen as a broken-down has-been, but the relationship between Preston and Lupino is moving. The film also has some laughs, like when Ace drunkenly rides a horse through the town parade like a madman and JR manages to both instigate and avoid a bar brawl.

I can't quite get behind Junior Bonner. It's straightforward to the point of simple, the narrative doesn't so much unfold as it proceeds from vignette to vignette, and by the end, not much has really changed from the beginning. Maybe that's the point, and if you want a nicer, sweeter Peckinpah picture, this is one to check out.

Monday, June 19, 2017

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

With The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970), director Sam Peckinpah moves away from the despair, cynicism, and brutal violence of his other Westerns toward a lyrical if bittersweet fable. Here, he celebrates the triumph of individual spirit and the cherished dream of American West, and most surprisingly, he does it with good-natured if sometimes crass humor.

The setup sounds like the expected Peckinpah plot. The titular Cable Hogue (Jason Robards) is left to die in the desert by his partners (Strother Martin and L.Q. Jones), and as they ride away, he vows to survive and get back at them, but first, he has to find water.

When he does, Cable realizes this is the only watering hole in a huge stretch of land between a couple of towns and decides this might make a good business venture. With advice and support from a wandering preacher (David Warner), he makes himself an entrepreneur and even begins to romance a local prostitute, Hildy (Stella Stevens). But one day, Cable knows his former partners will pass through.

The Ballad of Cable Hogue eschews the violence we expect from Sam Peckinpah. I think - and I might be mistaken - there are only two gunshots in the entire movie. Most of the action consists of Cable overcoming obstacles in his way and trying his damnedest to prove himself to a society that treats him like a bum and a fool. All things considered, the movie is rather sweet and a nostalgic. When Old Glory is hung over Cable's Spring, it's a genuine celebration of the American spirit.

Robards is the perfect actor for this role. He's tough and weathered; he's clearly lived through a great deal and has the will to survive, but there's a glimmer in his eyes, an inner light that says deep down, he's really an OK guy, never bitter or cynical. A man of great spirit, you might say, he takes everything in stride. As he wanders the desert looking for water, he turns to the sky and says, "Ain't had no water since yesterday, Lord. Gettin' a little thirsty. Just thought I'd mention it. Amen."

It is said of Cable that he is not a good man or a bad man, but truth be told, no one in the movie is all good or all bad. His partners betray him, but it's not hard to see their logic: they have enough water for two but not three. Joshua, the preacher played by Warner, is a man of God, and his preferred form of testimony involves comforting emotionally vulnerable women by sleeping with them. Even when hiding from one jealous husband, he can't resist copping feels or other attempts at seduction.

The movie is filled with that kind of bawdiness. When a not-quite dead husband turns up while Joshua is with a supposed widow, the film speeds up as the preacher tries to flee like in an episode of Benny Hill. This slapstick occurs on a grand scale when Cable, after insulting Hildy, ends up spreading chaos and confusion through the town as he tries to leave, culminating with the collapse of a revival tent on top of the congregation.

The humor also includes moments of triumph. Early on, after securing his claim, Cable tries to partner with a stage business and is humiliated when the owner (R.G. Armstrong) tosses him out, disbelieving his claim of water. Later, it's not hard to feel satisfaction when the owner and his employees turn up next door to Cable's watering hole, fruitlessly digging for their own spring. Looks like the dirty desert rat wasn't so crazy after all.

The film is beautifully shot, Jerry Goldsmith contributes a wonderfully folksy musical score, and it all leads to an ending that marks the passing of the Old West as modernity arrives in the form of those newfangled automobiles. Even blood feuds and old vendettas seem out of place in this brave new world.