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.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

The Getaway

The Getaway (1972) might be director Sam Peckinpah's most straightforward and commercial-sounding movie - a married fugitive couple on the run - but don't think Peckinpah's selling out. Quite the contrary, it's really, really good, possibly his leanest, most efficient work, and filled with his trademark style.

The fugitive couple in question is played by Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw. How can we tell she's not as completely disposable as some of the other women in other Peckinpah movies? She has to drive McQueen around because his license has expired.

McQueen and MacGraw play the McCoys, Doc and Carol (My God, these "Mc/Mac" names are a nightmare to keep track of!). In a script by Walter Hill based off the novel by Jim Thompson, the movie follows them after Doc gets out of prison, the pair plan and participate in a bank heist that goes terribly wrong, and they flee to Mexico with all sorts of loons and scumbags in pursuit, not to mention dealing with the occasional civilian who recognizes them as criminals.

It's a meat-and-potatoes story, but it is well served by Peckinpah's direction, Hill's characterization, and the performances of the cast. The film opens with a mostly wordless sequence of Doc in prison, and in a fluid, visual montage that captures the boredom and soul-crushing routine of life inside, we understand why Doc tells Carol to do whatever she can to get him out.

No, of course he won't regret telling her to do that and then blame her when he finds out exactly what she did because it impedes on his sense of manhood.

There are a number of standout sequences: the bank robbery and its meticulous planning and timing, the cat-and-mouse chase between Doc and a sleazebag cowboy who steals the money bag from a train station locker, a nighttime car chase at a burger joint that ensues when the waitresses realizes she's serving the McCoys, an evasion from police that ends with our leads in the back of a garbage truck, and the final showdown in a motel.

Peckinpah's great strength is to show rather than tell. While there's no absence of dialogue (in fact, there's a few good lines), he relies on imagery and action to tell his story without getting bogged down with over-explaining everything and leading the viewer by the hand. He and Hill both favor characters who take action rather than talk.

The cast is great. Nobody does laconic cool like McQueen; no one else could say so much while doing so little. MacGraw is the perfect foil, more open and emotional but willing to call him out on his stubborn nonsense. For a couple of lowlifes, they make for a sympathetic couple, and we root for them.

It helps that the rest of the performers play characters who are even worse. Ben Johnson is the corrupt businessmen who peddles his influence to get Doc out of prison and expects favors in return, Al Lettieri is a backstabbing accomplice in the robbery, and Sally Struthers is a hostage whom Lettieri takes in his pursuit of the McCoys but who quickly hops in the sack with him (they even tie up her husband to make him watch).

In fact, the only truly decent person in the movie is the appropriately credited Cowboy, played by Slim Pickens (aiding and abetting fugitives aside), providing further evidence that Pickens could remain jovial and good natured under any circumstances.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Unleash the Beast

If I had been listening to Saxon in 1997, I might have been concerned when I heard this album.

Unleash the Beast finds Saxon diving into a darker and heavier direction. Maybe it's the arrival of new guitarist Doug Scarratt (replacing fired founding member Graham Oliver), but Saxon seems to have actually unleashed a beast within themselves. Their sound is louder, packs more crunch, and resembles modern German power metal more than classic British New Wave. The title track is about stone gargoyles coming to life, but it could be a metaphor for the band embracing its heaviest sound yet.

"Unleash the beast.
The time has come.
Feel the fire in your soul.
It's time.
Unleash the beast."

But that's not why I would have been worried. It's not how the music sounds but what the songs are about. Lyrically, singer Biff Byford sings not about motorcycles, rock n roll, or good times but about betrayal, the loss of friends, near-death experiences, media manipulation, and snake-oil preachers. The band was almost 20 years old, and it's finding the world to be a frightening, despairing place. I can only speculate if "Cut Out the Disease" is about their soured relationship with Oliver.

"You make your living from backstabbing.
You're just a snake in handmade boots.
You slither round like something slimy.
Nothing's ever what it seems."

I mean, ouch. Tell us how you really feel, Biff. Elsewhere, Saxon includes creepy monster songs, including the aforementioned title track and "Bloodletter," which is about vampires, and the world itself is turning on people. "All Hell Breaks Loose" describes a hurricane as the "Devil's messenger" that is "screaming across the sky" and creating "death and chaos all around." The boys also describe a near-death experience on "Circle of Light," adding in a pumping heart beat and the sound of labored breathing for a creepy effect.

Only three tracks aren't so pessimistic. The gung-ho war epic "The Thin Red Line" recounts a battle for the glory of the British Empire and is suitably rousing. "Terminal Velocity is about skydiving but would fit in well with the band's past motorcycle tracks in how it gets the adrenaline flowing.

"Absent Friends" has an acoustic riff, and the band gives us a tender ballad dedicated to the group's late tour manager, John "JJ" Johns. Biff sounds genuinely upset and heartbroken over his fallen friend. It doesn't sound like the Biff we'd expect.

"You went in the morning.
We didn't say good bye.
The friends that you left here
Wonder why, wonder why."

I didn't care too much for Unleash the Beast when I first heard it. It didn't resonate for some reason, but the more I listen to it, the more I like it. Saxon shows us their dark side and continue to play with infectious energy and catchy melody melodies and riffs.

Standout Songs
"Unleash the Beast" - The title sets the dark, gothic mood.
"The Thin Red Line" - You'll be ready to enlist after hearing this.
"Cut Out the Disease" - Possibly the band's most cynical song.
"Absent Friends" - A touching tribute to the band's tour manager.

Favorite Moment
The solo on "The Thin Red Line." It feels like you're on the battlements making a final stand.

Album Cover
A living, drooling gargoyle with an evil look in his eyes crouches, ready to pounce from the rooftop. Sweetness.

Track Order
1) Gothic Dreams
2) Unleash the Beast
3) Terminal Velocity
4) Circle of Light
5) The Thin Red Line
6) Ministry of Fools
7) The Preacher
8) Bloodletter
9) Cut Out the Disease
10) Absent Friends
11) All Hell Breaks Loose

Personnel
Biff Byford - Vocals
Paul Quinn - Guitar
Doug Scarratt - Guitar
Nibbs Carter - Bass
Nigel Glockler - Drums

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars

Pink Floyd's The Wall might be my favorite album, but David Bowie's Ziggy Stardust is right up there, nipping at its heels.

When Bowie died, I described my feelings about him in another post, so I'll try not to rehash too much. He was a one-of-a-kind character who really defies categorization. He drew influences from a variety of genres, including rock, pop, soul, funk, and folk, and he blended it all together into a sound uniquely his own. No album captures Bowie's essence better than Ziggy Stardust.

Ziggy Stardust - or its full title, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars - is a concept album that tells the story of a messianic alien who arrives on an Earth facing the apocalypse because of a depletion of resources, and this strange, sexual being spreads a message of hope and salvation through rock n roll.

"There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He'd like to come and meet us
But he thinks he'd blow our minds.
There's a starman waiting in the sky.
He told us not to blow it
Cause he knows it's all worthwhile.
He told me."

I think that's what it's about.. It's a strange album, fantastical, other-worldly, kind of campy, full of glitz and glamour. Much like Bowie himself! It's also a deeply moving and uplifting work, filled with moments of genuine beauty, sorrow, and wonder.

Musically, Bowie combines many different genres: rock, hard rock, pop, psychedelia, and even a bit of soul and funk, and instead of clashing, these styles fit together into a coherent, theatrical whole. There are some catchy, acoustic guitar riffs by Bowie that many of the songs are built around while the electric guitar work of guitarist Mick Ronson give them a metallic sheen. Other songs feature piano, keyboard, trumpet and saxophone work, a cabaret of rock, you might say.

But the main strength of the album is Bowie, specifically his voice and persona. It's just... wow. "Five Years," the opener, contains genuine sorrow at the state of the world, and the closer, "Rock n Roll" Suicide," builds and builds in emotion. It feels like we've been on a journey, and something monumental has been released. As out-there and surreal the story is, Bowie hits on a very human feeling.

"Oh no, love, you're not alone.
You're watching yourself, but you're too unfair.
You got your head all tangled up, but if I could only make you care.
Oh no, love, you're not alone.
No matter what or who you've been.
No matter when or where you've seen."

Standout Songs
"Five Years" - A moody, carefully built opener.
"Starman" - To hear this song is to feel hope.
"Ziggy Stardust" - A strange but rocking and catchy tune.
"Rock N Roll Suicide" - The perfect closer for the album.

Favorite Moment
As "Rock n Roll Suicide" builds to its climax, it reaches a crescendo that can only be described as beautiful. It touches my spirit.

Album Cover
Bowie, as Ziggy Stardust, stands with his guitar on a London street outside a club. A strange being in a real world that could use some help.

Track Order
1) Five Years
2) Soul Love
3) Moonage Daydream
4) Starman
5) It Ain't Easy
6) Lady Stardust
7) Star
8) Hang On To Yourself
9) Ziggy Stardust
10) Suffragette City
11) Rock n Roll Suicide

Personnel
David Bowie - Vocals, Acoustic Guitar, Saxophone, Piano
Mick Ronson - Electric Guitar, Backing Vocals, Keyboard, Piano
Trevor Bolder - Bass, Trumpet
Mick Woodmansey - Drums

The Osterman Weekend

An adaptation of an espionage novel by Robert Ludlum, the author of The Bourne Identity, The Osterman Weekend (1983) seems a strange choice for director Sam Peckinpah, best known for his rugged, violent westerns. The film proved to be the last of Peckinpah, who died a year later, and critics tore it shreds, calling it a confusing mess.

Contrarily, I kind of liked it. To a point. It's what I'd call an interesting failure. I wouldn't rank it among Peckinpah's best, but its themes resonate and fit with the rest of his work, so I can see why the story might have appealed to him. Fans will recognize some his favorite topics, including loyalty, male identity, and the individual caught in a turbulent world he no longer recognizes.

John Tanner (Rutger Hauer), a TV journalist known for his confrontational interviews, is approached by CIA director Maxwell Danforth (Burt Lancaster) and top field agent Lawrence Fassett (John Hurt). They present Tanner with evidence showing his three college friends (Craig T. Nelson, Dennis Hopper, and Chris Sarandon) are part of a Soviet spy ring and a grave threat to the United States.

Danforth and Fassett know the four friends meet up every year for a weekend, and they want to stake out Tanner's house during the get-together to try to convert one of them away from the Soviets. Complicating the matter is the presence of Tanner's wife (Meg Foster) and young son as well as the wives of two of the friends (Helen Shaver and Cassie Yates).

In a way, The Osterman Weekend is a play on Straw Dogs. Instead of fighting to protect the sanctity of his home from outsiders, Tanner himself agrees, albeit reluctantly, to have that sanctity violated by two different forces: the shadowy CIA and the men he thought were his friends. These are people he should be able to trust for protection.

The movie is at its most intriguing in the first half as Tanner tries to keep up the appearance of normalcy in the face of earth-shattering revelations. Can he really trust the CIA? Do his friends think he knows something? Will he confide in his wife? The character interaction here is laced with irony, paranoia, suspicion, and uncertainty, and at some point, the situation is going to explode.

Meanwhile, Fassett, the point man on the operation, watches, from a secluded location, everything that is going on through a system of video cameras and listens in to all conversations. He's the most interesting character; his wife is assassinated in the opening scene, and it was his hunt for the killers that uncovered the spy ring, although Danforth tells another agent the CIA let the killing occur. Fassett is a peculiar character, not only observing but manipulating the others unseen, and he relishes that level of power and control. When Tanner asks who's pulling his strings, Fassett mocks him by pretending to be a marionette.

The movie started to lose me in the second half when the truth comes out and the plot descends into the expected Peckinpah violence, i.e. slow motion of action of people being horribly shot, stabbed, and blown up, and the film becomes much more on the nose with its Straw Dogs comparisons. It devolves into a lot of running around, screaming, and threats, and in the process, the character and plot end up buried.

Characters reveal new motivations, raising all sorts of unanswered questions that muddy the narrative and confuse me. Some of the actions taken by the characters appear really baffling. Looking back on the film, I think I can piece everything together, but in the moment, I got lost, and some of the potential dramatic impact was muted as a result.

Maybe Peckinpah wasn't the right director for this material. Maybe someone a little more sleeker, a little more refined, could have balanced all the plot threads better. Still, I'm glad he got to make it. In a way, a lesser Peckinpah movie is more interesting than a good movie by another director.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Cross of Iron

I'm tempted to call Cross of Iron (1977) "All Quiet on the Eastern Front." After all, it is about German soldiers slugging it out in the trenches (of World War II this time) as they experience firsthand the futility of warfare and the senseless loss of life. Like Paul Baumer, they live, fight, and die in the mud, smoke, dirt and are just worn out and exhausted.

When the German colonel played by James Mason asks what they will do when they lose this war, his subordinate David Warner has the answer ready for him: "Prepare for the next one."

But this is a Sam Peckinpah movie, and I don't think any of his movies could be described as "quiet." When the filmmaker behind The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia creates a war movie, you can be damn sure he'll give us a maelstrom and enough explosions to make Michael Bay blush.

Peckinpah strips away anything resembling glory or heroism. The combat does not look fun or exciting but terrifying, dehumanizing, chaotic, and relentless. Swarms of men rush from all sides, get tangled in barbed wire, step on landmines, get bayoneted, etc. It's a meat grinder, and of course, Peckinpah is still using his slow motion camera, so we linger on the falling and contorting bodies.

On with the plot. Cross of Iron follows a platoon of German soldiers in Russia in 1943. The main character is Sgt. Steiner (James Coburn), a veteran who knows the German cause is lost but values the lives of his men. His new commanding officer is Captain Stransky (Maximilian Schell), a Bavarian aristocrat who requested a transfer to Russia so he could win the Iron Cross, the highest German decoration for heroism. The tension between the cynical, weary Steiner and the glory-seeking Stransky is the thread on which the movie hangs.

Cross of Iron is an antiwar film. These Germans are fighting for a cause they know is lost, and all the war brings is death and destruction. Peckinpah also touches on class warfare. For Stransky, the war is a chance to win acclaim, return home a conquering hero to inflate his status. The regular soldier is just a pawn for him to achieve that. For Steiner, the fighting is useless; the only thing worth doing is surviving. The enlisted man is his brother.

Steiner has already won the Iron Cross, but he calls it a "worthless piece of metal" and asks Stransky why he wants it. Stransky answers, "It's not worthless to me."

Cross of Iron covers the massive Eastern Front campaign, but strangely enough, it feels claustrophobic. Those trenches aren't very spacious, and when in enemy territory, surrounded by an advancing army, the characters feel trapped and overwhelmed. It's like Hell on Earth.

Like other Peckinpah works, there are quiet moments, especially among Steiner and his men. Going back to the class angle, they are mostly salt-of-the-earth, regular working class Germans. They're cannon fodder, sent off to die for a pointless because men like Stransky are in charge. Yet, they try to keep their dignity as well as their lives, and they share a camaraderie that makes their ultimate fates heartrending.

The war is lost, their leaders have betrayed them, and they will most likely die horribly, but they have each other.

Major Dundee

Sam Peckinpah gets closer to The Wild Bunch, but he's not quite there. One could argue Major Dundee (1965) is his test run for that later masterpiece. Both movies are Westerns about rugged men in a violent world holding on to their ideas of manhood, professionalism, and loyalty. Additionally, both feature many of the same actors in the supporting cast, including Warren Oates and Ben Johnson.

The main difference is the nature of the central relationship between the two male leads of each movie. In The Wild Bunch, Robert Ryan and William Holden were former partners and best friends forced to become hunter and hunted. In Major Dundee, Charlton Heston and Richard Harris are enemies who team up to track down renegade Apaches during the waning days of the Civil War.

Heston is Dundee, a glory-seeking Union officer in charge of a prison camp in New Mexico. Harris is Lieutenant Tyreen, the ranking Confederate officer imprisoned there and a former comrade of Dundee's. Tyreen is still bitter because Dundee was the deciding vote in a court martial that drummed him out of the service before the war.

Major Dundee was a troubled production, and Peckinpah fought with the studio over the budget and final cut. The version I watched is the "extended" version, which has some restored scenes and added different music from the version released in theaters in 1965 and is probably the closest we're going to get to Peckinpah's true vision for the film.

Compared to The Wild Bunch, Major Dundee lacks as much focus. The movie begins with the aftermath of a massacre of civilians and cavalry by a notorious Apache group led by Sierra Charriba (Michael Pate), who is set up in this scene as the big villain of the movie (He even asks, "Who you send against me now?" Appropriately, the title card appears and the main theme kicks on). Yet, Charriba has little presence in the movie, and there are long stretches were Dundee's group go off on tangents and don't seem too concerned with him.

Much of the film takes place in Mexico, and down South, our heroes must contend with low supplies and occupying French forces. There's an extended siesta in a poor Mexican village and a romance between Dundee and an Austrian widow living there (Senta Berger). For a long time, it feels like we're in a completely different movie, and when a wounded Dundee recuperates in a city and descends into a drunken stupor, the movie stops dead.

Overall, Major Dundee has a rather episodic feel, unified by the unnecessary narration of Michael Anderson Jr. as a wet-behind-the-ears bugler. The narrative doesn't march with efficiency to the climax so much as it stops for incidents along the way: an night-time river ambush, the siesta with the Mexican village, robbing the French soldiers for their supplies, dealing with a deserter, etc. Many sequences are quite good, great even, but some characters feel shortchanged to the point I kept forgetting they were in the movie.

All that said, Major Dundee remains a strong effort and a worthy entry in Peckinpah's canon. Performances are great all around, and the central conflict between Dundee and Tyreen is a fascinating portrait of two uncompromising, hard-bitten men. Dundee is a man who drives everyone else to his will; Tyreen is a man who keeps his word, even as he promises to kill Dundee when it's fulfilled.

Again Peckinpah gives us a West that is more rough, more dangerous, and more grounded than what anyone else was doing in Hollywood at that time.While not as graphic as The Wild Bunch, Major Dundee doesn't pull its punches. Witnessing the aftermath of the massacre that kicks off the plot, we see the Apache did not spare the children and that one soldier was left hanging upside down and mutilated. Dundee says he hopes the man was dead when they did that to him, but one of his subordinates notes, "If he was dead, they wouldn't have done it."

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Master of Reality

If I were going to a desert island and could only take one Black Sabbath album with me, I'd take Master of Reality.

Other people would probably take the likes of Paranoid, their debut album, or Heaven and Hell, and while I have no problem acknowledging those albums as their best, Master is my personal favorite, the one I revisit the most.

It's a lean, mean record without a wasted moment. While the songs contain the complex arrangements we expect from the group, only the epic closer "Into the Void" breaches the six-minute mark. Sabbath capture some of their heaviest and eeriest sounds, the performances are inspired, and except for "Sweet Leaf" and "Children of the Grave," the rest of the album contains songs that don't get regular radio play or collected with the greatest hits.

Except from the opener "Sweet Leaf," an ode to marijuana, Master of Reality finds the Birmingham quartet fully probing the dark overtones of their previous albums while simultaneously calling out those who would "choose evil ways instead of love," as Ozzy sings from the point of view of the devil in "Lord of this World."

"Your world was made for you by someone above
But you choose evil ways instead of love.
You made me master of the world where you exist.
The soul I took from you was not even missed." 

The album is built on despairing for the state of the world whether it be because people reject God and love ("After Forever"), the threat of nuclear war ("Children of the Grave), or abandoning the Earth to find an un-poisoned new world ("Into the Void").

"Back on earth the flame of life burns low.
Everywhere is misery and woe.
Pollution kills the air, the land, the sea.
Man prepares to meet his destiny."

Tony Iommi uses a tuned-down guitar on the album, Geezer Butler matches him on bass, and this tandem gives the music a heavier, sludgier, throbbing sound. With Bill Ward's intense drumming, the songs are earth-shaking, and Ozzy's despondent vocals are the perfect foil.

But it's not all doom. Iommi plays a couple of acoustic instrumentals, "Embryo" and "Orchid." The former is rather sinister as it builds in intensity, leading into "Children of the Grave," and the latter feels like a lament. Ozzy gets involved with the heartache on the tender and soft "Solitude." He sounds vulnerable, not at all like the Prince of Darkness, and the backing flute feels rather fitting.

"My name it means nothing.
My fortune is less.
My future is shrouded in dark wilderness.
Sunshine is far away.
Clouds linger on."

Standout Songs
"Sweet Leaf" - Heavy, psychedelic, yet humorous
"Children of the Grave" -A galloping race to the apocalypse
"Lord of This World" - A swinging reminder not to trust Beelzebub
"Solitude" - Who knew Sabbath could be heartbreaking?
"Into the Void" - Epic climax to the album with soaring and heavy music

Favorite Moment
The opening of "Into the Void." Erupting from the softness out of "Solitude," it practically launches the listener into outer space.

Album Cover
The band name is purple lettering, and the album name in grey against a black backdrop. Functional, but it needs an image.

Track Listing
1) Sweet Leaf
2) After Forever
3) Embryo
4) Children of the Grave
5) Orchid
6) Lord of this World
7) Solitude
8) Into the Void 

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

Darkman

Darkman (1990), directed by Sam Raimi, is a fine superhero movie based on a comic book that never existed. Though not based on any established source material like Batman or Superman, the plot hits all the expected beats: a brilliant scientist is disfigured in a lab explosion orchestrated by the villain, and our hero uses his newfound powers to take his revenge, bring down the bad guys, and reunite with his pretty girlfriend.

Here, the tragic scientist is Dr. Peyton Westlake (Liam Neeson), his girlfriend is crusading lawyer Julie (Frances McDormand), and the nasty villain is a wonderfully smug piece of work named Robert Durant (Larry Drake), who clips his cigars with the same cutter he uses on fingers. There's also corporate bigwig Strack (Colin Friels), who's actually the evil mastermind behind everything, but honestly, he's not that interesting.

Anyone familiar superhero stories will know how Darkman unfolds, but we don't watch Sam Raimi movies for the plot. We watch for the fun, zany, and energetic style he brings, and Darkman is certainly a fun, zany, energetic, and stylish movie, almost as if Raimi is warming up for the Spider-Man movies he'd later direct.

Westlake combines brains and brawn in his quest for vengeance. His injuries (and subsequent treatment at the hospital) leave him with severed nerve endings, so he feels no pain, and while this proves useful, it occasionally leads to bouts of boiled over rage when his brain, so starved for sensation, drives him him a little crazy.

As a scientist, Westlake was working on a synthetic skin, and while it creates perfect replicas, the skin only lasts 99 minutes before dissolving. This leads to some of the more inspired moments in the movie as Westlake creates disguises to work his way through Durant's gang to get them to turn on each other. The result is a balancing act between slapstick and excitement, particularly a scene where he impersonates Durant and the real one turns up. How will Durant's henchmen determine who's real and who's the impostor?

While this role probably won't be featured in the montage of his work when he receives his lifetime achievement Oscar, Liam Neeson is quite good. Wrapped in bandages like the Mummy and skulking around the shadows and back alleys like the Phantom of the Opera, he's suitably tortured and borderline deranged, and yet his scenes with Frances McDormand, who is also solid in a standard part, are sweet and tender. Elsewhere, Larry Drake makes a wonderfully slimy villain.

Raimi gives the movie his all. Pretty much any shot could be extracted from extracted from the movie and used as a panel in a comic book. Raimi zips his camera around with infectious energy, and he gives us a lot of off-kilter, wild camera angles. The only downside is some shoddy green screen work.

Danny Elfman does the score. It sounds very similar to the one he did for Tim Burton's Batman, but hey, at least it's one worth cribbing from.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Zen

Most men in their 40s who live with their mothers are probably not seen as desirable by women, but then again, most men aren't Rufus Sewell.

In Zen (2011), Sewell plays Aurelio Zen, an Italian police detective in Rome. Zen originated in the crime novels by author Michael Dibdin, who himself was British, so if you have complaints about a British actor playing an Italian, I guess in a roundabout way we should have expected it.

Dibdin wrote 11 Zen novels. This TV miniseries, comprised of three 90-minute episodes for BBC, adapts three of them, and that's probably all were getting, at least with Rufus Sewell and from the BBC. That's a shame because over the course of the three episodes, as I followed the characters, learned who they were and remembered their names, and saw all the developments unfold, I liked Zen more and more. It's a fun, stylish detective series with a sly sense of humor and a strong emphasis on character development.

Compared to other police and detective shows, Zen is more political. I don't mean that it contains a lot of social subtext or offers commentary or satire.Yes, government officials play prominent roles in the stories, but the politics here is more office politics and career advancement. Zen himself has a strong sense of right and wrong and always tries to do the right thing, but he's not above trading favors, working to keep something hush-hush that might embarrass a government minister, or humiliating an inept co-worker who only has a job because of family connections.

As others approach him throughout the series, Zen repeatedly hears he is a man of integrity, which is true. In a country with constant government turnover with police known for corruption and self-serving behavior, Zen dedicates himself to upholding the law, at great risk personally and professionally. His father was a police officer killed in the line of duty, and while it's never stated aloud, that probably informs his dedication to the job, even though his friend and former co-worker Gilberto (Francesco Quinn) tells him to quit and join his private detective agency for more money.

But Zen is not a square Joe Friday clone. Sewell plays him as a man who rarely gets upset or fazed; he seems more bemused by everything than infuriated, constantly scoping all the angles, and he's not averse to the occasional quip. After he turns down a woman's offer to go upstairs while her husband is away, she asks him if he doesn't like sex, and the detective, long separated from his wife, replies, "No, in fact, I have fond memories of it."

Zen is less focused on the forensics of police work than its contemporaries. In the three episodes, Zen investigates a murder in which the presumed killer retracts his confession, a suicide, and kidnapping, and the procedural aspects are less about fingerprints, DNA, etc. and more about motive, who's lying, and what are the ulterior agendas of all parties. Even these parts have traces of humor, like a murder suspect who insists he didn't do it because he would have preferred to kidnap the victim and hold him for ransom.

The show is like that, balancing believable humor with hard-boiled drama. The show also has a romantic side. Over the course of the series, Zen begins a relationship with co-worker Tania (Caterina Murino), and it goes from initial mutual interest, trying to keep it secret from the office (despite a pool by the men to see who beds her first, which Zen rightly calls sexist), and dealing with trust issues, not to mention Tania's soon-to-be ex-husband.

The show makes good use of its Italian locations. We go from modern urban Rome to mountain villages to country estates and even into underground caverns.Zen deals with a whole manner of people and scum: belligerent yet dependable boss Moscati (Stanley Townsend), the Minister's nefarious fixer Colonna (Ben Miles), and his saint of a mother Donata (Catherine Spaak).

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Alien: Covenant

On a far-off planet in the distant future, a crew member is infected with an unknown organism that violently bursts from his body and begins picking off the other humans. Meanwhile, a human-like android proves treacherous.

I've heard this song before.

I neither liked nor disliked Alien: Covenant (2017). I admire the craft that went into the movie and enjoyed some moments and performances, and director Ridley Scott continues to explore interesting thematic territory in the series, but the movie feels hollow. When you get down to it, it's yet another story about nasty xenomorphs that stalk dark corridors and kill humans.

Picking some time after the events of Prometheus, Alien Covenant follows the crew of a colony ship on their way to settle a new world. Curiously, the crew is comprised of married couples while the cargo includes a couple thousand other would-be colonists and embryos in stasis to populate their intended home.

Frankly, I would have liked more of this material. The Alien movies have traditionally examined different types of ground-level, blue collar characters - truckers, marines, prisoners - and that gave the series a hard-boiled, gritty edge that separated it from, say, Star Wars, which is more escapist fantasy. I was curious to see how these colonists would settle and adapt to a strange environment. The aforementioned truckers and marines were basically passing through alien territory; these people aim to set up the rest of their lives there.

Alas, once the crew lands on a different planet (responding to a strange signal), it doesn't take long for the blood and guts to start spilling, and the colonization effort gets forgotten about. The movie becomes a run, hide, and escape plot.

Look, I know it's an Alien movie; the aliens have to turn up as some point, but I'm disappointed because the movie bull rushes through to get to them, ignoring potentially more interesting story threads and shortchanging characters. I kept losing track of who was who, what they were doing, and when bad stuff happened to them, I didn't  care. The crew we follow is 15 people plus an android, and only a handful make any kind of impression. Most are just monster chow.

Thank God for Michael Fassbender. In a duel performance, as the upgraded android Walter and the returning android David, he is excellent as both. The scene where the two "brothers" talk about their creator and David instructs Walter how to play the flute is wonderful, a quiet yet ominous moment in the midst of all that running around and screaming by the other cast members. Neither of them can create as humans do, and while Walter is OK with that, David is not.

It is the arrival of David, who first appeared in Prometheus, that got me most interested. In a sense, he has been cast as the fallen angel of the series: a perfect creation, a robot, rebelling against his creator, the human race. Lucifer's most famous line in Paradise Lost is quoted in the movie, and David has created a race of monsters that would challenge humanity.

Yet, as intriguing as this is, it does take away from some of the aliens' mystery. They have gone from strange beings of the unknown cosmos humanity stumbles upon to the creations of a rebellious robot. Maybe future sequels will make this development worthwhile, but right now, the Alien universe feels smaller.

Elsewhere, Katherine Waterston makes for a tough enough, competent heroine in Daniels, but the biggest surprise acting-wise is Danny McBride, quite good in a rare serious as crew member Tennessee; he stays on board the ship in orbit while his wife goes down with the landing crew. Billy Crudup, however, as the replacement captain Oram is given little to do, and towards the end, his character makes a monumentally stupid decision when he decides to examine an alien egg.

A lot of characters do stupid things that get them killed, like wandering off alone in hostile territory or having sex and not being able to hear the impending danger. It's the kind of cliched nonsense I wouldn't expect from an Alien movie or Ridley Scott.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Envoy

Who else but Warren Zevon could write a song about Philip Habib and make it cool?

Habib was a famous career diplomat, and in the early 80s, he served as Ronald Reagan's personal envoy to the Middle East, where he is credited with helping avert war. With the opening title track off his album The Envoy (1982), Zevon makes international diplomacy and peace negotiations sound as exciting and dangerous as anything in a James Bond movie.

"Nuclear arms in the Middle East.
Israel's attacking the Iraqis.
The Syrians are mad at the Lebanese,
and Baghdad does whatever she please.
Looks like another threat to world peace
for the envoy.

That's the kind of style we could expect from Zevon, the multi-talented singer and musician who always gave off the impression he never took himself too seriously. The Envoy is another fine entry in his body of work, an album that incorporates his blend of rock, pop, humor, and heartbreak.

Zevon's known for his prominent use of piano, and The Envoy has a lot of that, but Zevon also uses a synthesizer throughout the album. On such songs as the title track and "Ain't That Pretty At All," the synth gives the music a bigger sound while maintaining a catchy melody. The former does feel like the title track for an espionage movie while the latter has more of a back-and-forth, sing-songy feel and captures Zevon's defiant spirit and cheeky sense of humor.

"Well, I've seen all there is to see
And I've heard all they have to day.
I've done everything I wanted to.
I've done that too.
And it ain't that pretty at all.
Ain't that pretty at all.
So I'm going to hurl myself against the wall
Cause I'd rather feel bad than not feel anything at all."

Other songs are quieter and softer. "Charlie's Medicine" builds from a little piano melody to a somewhat more aggressive electric guitar riff to create a lament for a dead drug dealer, moving from quiet shock to loud grief. It moves slower, and as with a lot of great Zevon songs, it tells a story.

"Charlie dealt in pharmaceuticals.
Charlie used to sell me pills.
Yesterday his sister called to tell me
He'd been killed.
Some respectable doctor from Beverly Hills
Shot him through the heart
Charlie didn't feel a thing.
Neither of them did.
Poor kid.

"The Hula Hula Boys," which has a recorder solo and a Polynesian island feel, is also about loss. In this case, the song's narrator loses his wife or girlfriend to one of the local Hawaiian boys while on vacation. She went to see the band but came back with "her hair wet and her clothes filled with sand." Adding insult to injury, he sees the bellboys smirk at him because he lost his woman.

Elsewhere, Zevon gets romantic. He includes a couple of love ballads, "Let Nothing Come Between You," and "Never Too Late for Love." Meanwhile, "The Overdraft" is a straightforward rocking tune.

Standout Songs
"The Envoy" - Such a great, cool opener
"Ain't That Pretty at All" - A cathchy humorous number.
"Charlie's Medicine" - Zevon knows how to tug the heartstrings, even for an ostensibly despicable drug dealer

Favorite Moment
During "Ain't That Pretty at All," a crowd of backing singers chant and clap along to the chorus. The song really comes to life there.  

Album Cover
Zevon, in a suit and surrounded by others similarly dressed, gets ready to board the plane. He looks like an envoy about to go off to some far off country on important business.

Track Order
1) The Envoy
2) The Overdraft
3) The Hula Hula Boys
4) Jesus Mentioned
5) Let Nothing Come Between You
6) Ain't That Pretty at All
7) Charlie's Medicine
8) Looking for the Next Best Thing
9) Never Too Late for Love

Personnel
Warren Zevon - Vocals, Guitar, Piano, Synthesizer
Waddy Wachtel - Guitar
David Landau - Guitar
Leland Sklar - Bass
Jeff Porcaro - Drums
And 18 guest singers and musicians, including Don Henley and Graham Nash, on various songs

Thursday, June 1, 2017

The Eternal Idol

Here's where the bleeding stopped.

After the departures of Ozzy Osbourne and Ronnie James Dio, Black Sabbath membership became a game of musical chairs with different guys cycling in and out. By 1987, only guitarist Tony Iommi remained of the original lineup, and in fact, the previous album, Seventh Star, was supposed to be an Iommi solo project before record company pressure forced its release under the Sabbath moniker.

The recording of The Eternal Idol was similarly chaotic. Producers came and went as did backing musicians. Ray Gillen was supposed to be the vocalist and even recorded some songs, but he departed, too, leaving the band in a lurch. By this point, Sabbath had seen Ozzy, Dio, Gillen, Ian Gillan, and Glenn Hughes as singers. To finish the album, the band brought in relative unknown singer Tony Martin (no, not the same one who sang "Stranger in Paradise").

With all the dysfunction and setbacks, the pleasant surprise of The Eternal Idol is it emerges as a consistent and solid album that in no way reflects its difficult birth. No, it doesn't compare to the likes of Paranoid or Heaven and Hell, but as an example of smooth, polished late-80s heavy metal, it's worth checking out by those fans who can accept other front men for the legendary band.

Musically, The Eternal Idol is positioned somewhere between the gloomy, gothic sludge of the Ozzy era and the faster, fantasy-based juggernaut of the Dio years. The songs are mostly mid-tempo, and Iommi's guitar packs some mighty riffs, especially on the awesome opener, "The Shining" and "Hard Life to Love." The sound is more anthemic than the usual Sabbath fare, still heavy but much more uplifting, the kind of music you raise your fist to and sing along with.

"Rise up to the shining
Live long, live now.
Rise up to the shining
Don't be blinded by fools again.
Fools again."

Rounding out the sound is the keyboard work of Geoff Nicholls, perhaps the most underappreciated member of Sabbath in its history. His work gives the hard-rocking songs some cool atmosphere and a touch of the band's expected eeriness, especially on the title track, "Glory Ride," and "Nightmare," that contrast nicely with the crunch of the guitar.

Vocally, Martin is closer to Dio than Ozzy. His voice is cleaner and smoother than Ozzy's, and he can hit those high notes and soar when called upon to do so. He's unsung among Sabbath singers, but after Ozzy, he ended up having the longest tenure as vocalist, and on The Eternal Idol, it's not hard to see why: he's dependable.

"It won't be too long.
You think I'm chasing shadows in the dark.
Well I'm not born to lose."

Standout Songs
"The Shining" - A great opener and a lost classic.
"Hard Life to Love" - Sabbath plays an epic rock anthem.
"Scarlet Pimpernel" - A short instrumental. Iommi plays a gentle, tender acoustic guitar.

Favorite Moment
The opening of "The Shining" and its main riff. Given the band's then-recent troubled history, they sound re-energized, rocking, and alive.

Album Cover
A recreation of an Auguste Rodin sculpture from which the album draws its name, showing two nude figures, a submissive male leaning against a dominant female. Perhaps reflecting the band's recent struggles while highlighting their dedication?

Track Order
1) The Shining
2) Ancient Warrior
3) Hard Life to Love
4) Glory Ride
5) Born to Lose
6) Nightmare
7) Scarlet Pimpernel
8) Lost Forever
9) Eternal Idol

Personnel
Tony Iomi - Guitar
Tony Martin - Vocals
Geoff Nicholls - Keyboard
Bob Daisley - Bass
Eric Singer - Drums