Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What Goes With Shark?

From time to time, I'll have "movie nights" at the apartment.

Yeah, contain your shock at that one....

Recently, I set up a special event for a screening of Jaws with some folks who've never seen it. Yeah, I know, heathens, but we're trying to fix it. I mean, yeah, even my big TV and surround sound aren't going to compare to actually seeing it in a theater with a screaming audience, but we do what we can.

It's no joke that I find Jaws to be one of the greatest movies of all time. It's a truly brilliant melding of Roger Corman-style sensibilities with a absolutely awe-inspiring talent that emerged, almost wholly formed, out of Spielberg with this picture. It's fun, brilliant, and important cinema all in one fell swoop.


But what do you co-program with genius? The idea is that we'll watch two, or maybe three, films. I've done "trilogy nights," which are a sheer blast, and easy to set up. (Unless you're doing Lord of the Rings, or The Godfather, or the whole 6-film Star Wars cycle, then you run into some serious time crunch issues) This time, I'm just thinking 2 movies, any third would be picked on the fly.

Do you do an "Early Spielberg" evening? Follow up Jaws with the even more assured, and personal, Close Encounters of the Third Kind? Take the opportunity to show how The Beard uses the audiences expectations from Jaws to amp up the alien visitations, imbibing them with a dread that is masterfully turned in the final act? Not to mention the watching how Spielberg evolves even over just a couple of years.

Or do we co-program a film along similar lines? I'm not talking about one of the cash-grab rip-offs, like Tentacles, or Piranha, or even Kingdom of the Spiders. (I'm not often into bad films...It's gotta be very specific conditions. After one of the best films ever isn't it.) Perhaps an equally great film with a similar "predator" motif, where the makers used their skills to the fullest audience-manipulating glory?

Yeah, maybe Ridley Scott's Alien. There's certainly similarities, the monster preying upon our cast, picking them off, one by one, until the final confrontation.

 Or, perhaps, take a bit more meta approach to it? How about "brilliant films who's reputations are tarnished by weaker sequels?" I could co-program Rocky. I admit, Rocky has done better in the sequel game. Rocky II, III, and Rocky Balboa are all at least watchable, and sometimes brilliant in their own way. Jaws is the only Jaws film worth anyone's time. Trust me. Still, in both cases, there is a tendency to discredit or diminish the original because of the existence of sequels that strain credibility.

It has the advantage that I think both of those films are sheer genius.

Of course, along those lines, how about "second films of the beard twins?" I could offer up American Graffiti, George Lucas' second feature film, to go with Spielberg's. (THX-1138 and Sugarland Express being their respective firsts) That would be counter-programming at it's finest, and again, they're both great films.

AND you'd have the Richard Dreyfuss connection...Could even be a triple-feature with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Hmmmm.....

Really, when it comes right down to it, the best double feature would be a film I don't even own. Spielberg's 1971 TV movie, Duel. (It was released theatrically in Europe, and ultimately in the US as well...after Jaws struck box office gold) The Beard has been pretty clear that many of the techniques that made Jaws work so well started in Duel. (He even goes far enough to point out the titles of both films have 4 letters.) They certainly share the "behemoth hunts the everyman" theme. I think Duel is quite good, but it's no Jaws.

Ultimately, it's gonna be the pick of the people in the room, but I love trying to come up with interesting films to watch together.

Next Verse, Same as the First

It's amazing to me, looking back, that my first two CDs, I "released" them within two years of each other. The first Hourglass 34, was SIX YEARS ago. I was fairly prolific at the time. I still am, to a point. I have a backlog of lyrics, riffs, and other such nonsense. What I haven't been able to do is get those riffs and lyrics recorded in a way I am happy with.

This was brought home last night. I have about seven tracks in various stages of development. I listened through all of them last night, cringing all the way. Guitar tones that just do not mesh, bass that doesn't cut through, robo-drums (a fact of life I have to live with, at this point) that stand out too much. Blah, blah, blah.

So, in my grand tradition of burning my ships to motivate the crew....I'm ditching all of it, and starting from scratch. I have good stuff here, I just need to focus it, speed some of it up, and streamline what I'm doing. I also have to build a one-song-at-a-time work ethic. Right now, I have so many tracks, all in different stages of completion, or non-completion, and I can't even remember where I am with them. I feel like I've allowed myself to get lost in trying to get as much material going as I can, instead of just seeing each through until I'm happy, THEN moving on.

I have a lot of material. Thankfully, I've actually become a lot better at writing things down in a way where I can remember and execute them again, if needed. I was horrible at this with my first two CDs of material. I have tracks I recorded for those that would probably take me hours to figure out how and what I played.

Which is just stupid, seriously. What kind of an idiot am I?

Other things learned from the review:

I do not need so much distortion. Yeah, I have a few "metal-ish" tracks, that can benefit from a rather extreme thrash-style distortion setting, but most of this is heading for a more 70's hard rock vibe. That's begs for a warmer tone, with balls, but also not so brittle. It's not so aggressive.

Maybe go back to lighter strings. I've been playing with strings starting with an .11 on the high E. This is a pretty damn heavy string gage. I also do not de-tune the strings. At first, I liked the almost acoustic-feel that gave my Les Paul. Listening back, however, I think maybe it's too much. The Les already has a rather beefy tone, and the heavy strings push that even further. I may change my mind about this, but I think, before I start back into this stuff, I'll re-string with .10s or .9s.

Think about parts and dynamics. It's a hold-over from my 8-track recording days that I try to slam through the entire song in one take, one tone. I do not need to do this anymore. I have 24 tracks, I need to stop being afraid to use them. I also find myself at times thinking "how will I ever switch those tones live?" Which is dumb. The odds that I'll ever play this stuff live are pretty slim, if I'm being realistic, so I should work for the recording, and deal with the live situation if it ever actually happens.

Spend more time working with what my equipment can do for me. I have an amazing home studio unit. Mastering tools, editing, on-board effects, and I probably know how to use, effectively, about 50% of it. I need to work on that, because it'll only make me sound better, in the end. I need to take an afternoon, and just watch my instructional video all the way through, again, take notes, and treat it like a class. It'll only make things better.

Have confidence in my material and abilities. I was pretty amazed that most of the stuff that REALLY bothered me, when I reviewed this stuff, was technical. My vocals could benefit with some effect processing, my tone choices were not the best, but what I was doing worked pretty well. The stuff I've written also held up to my original gut reaction that it was some of my best writing, ever. Yeah, I could spend some time on melody lines, but it'll help to have complete backing tracks to work with.

I do confess some disappointment in this turn of events, personally. Mainly because, if I'd done what I did with my 8-track, and just hashed out a song, all the way through, right off the bat, I'd be further along now. That first track wasn't supposed to be a keeper, but a way to learn the whole process of putting a song together. If I'd done that with the Tascam, I'd probably have 4-5 completely finished track now, rather than 7-8 halfway finished ones.

At the end of the day, I know this CD is going to have duds on it, and I know it's not going to sound as good I I want it to. The drums, alone, assure that. However, I have all the tools, and material, to create something better than what I did on the last two disks, and that needs to be my goal. If I can make that adjustment, I'm sure I'll start seeing headway, rather than where I've been, feeling overwhelmed and stuck.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Stuck in my Head 1.30.2012

by Extreme

Today don't look so bad,
Compared to tomorrow.
If time is all we have,
Then we're living on borrowed.
Yesterday's for fools who try to remember.
The good old days weren't always that much better.

Well, I ain't nothing but a Cynical.
It don't take much to be a Cynical.
All you need is love.
All you need is what to be a...

And whatever you do,
Someone's done it first.
Though it's sad but true,
This is just another verse.
If you can't take it with you, then what's the use?
I never saw a you-haul being pulled behind a hearse.

Looks like my brighter side has gotten a bit darker.
I must have stepped over my 4-leaf clover.
'cause someone drank my half-filled cup of water.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Stuck in My Head 1.27.2012

I was listening to Motorhead this morning, and realized Lemmy and crew do everything AC/DC does, but better.

(Yeah, waiting on the hate mail for that one)

Deaf Forever
by Motorhead

Stoneface dog, swirling fog, gates open on the dark dark night
Standing stone, skull and bone, dead witness to an unseen fight
Beat the drum, beat the drum, beat forever on the endless march
Stricken dumb, Cut and run, someone is screaming and the sky is dark

Sword and shield, bone and steel, rictus grin
Deaf forever to the battles din

March or croak, flame and smoke, burn forever in eternal pain
Charge and fall, bugle call, bone splinter in the driving rain
Horses scream, Viking dream, drowned heroes in a lake of blood
Armored fist, severed wrist, broken spears in a sea of mud

Sword and shield, bone and steel, rictus grin
Deaf forever to the battles din

Deaf forever, Stone Deaf Forever

Mother earth, mother earth enfold you in her cold embrace
Sinking down, killing ground, worm crawling on your cold white face
Win or lose, nought to choose, all men are equal when their memory fades
No one knows, friends or foes, if Valhalla lies beyond the grave

Sword and shield, bone and steel, rictus grin
Deaf forever to the battles din

Deaf forever, Stone Deaf Forever

Sword and shield, bone and steel, rictus grin
Deaf forever to the battles din

Deaf forever, Stone Deaf Forever

Sword and shield, bone and steel, rictus grin
Deaf forever to the battles din

Deaf forever, Stone Deaf Forever

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

2012 Oscar Nominations


Remember when expanding the number of Best Picture nominees was supposed to allow "wild card" films that maybe had more public appeal? It's a stupid reason to expand the field, honestly. Yeah, I thought The Dark Knight was the best movie of 2008, and I would have liked to see it nominated. That said, I also wasn't offended that it wasn't, and No Country for Old Men was an equally amazing film.

Still, I sit here looking at this year's nominees, and...how predictable. Anyway, some comments on the major categories. I'm not going to get into "Best Sound Design" and all that, because discussing that sort of technical category is really not that much fun.

Best Picture
The Artist
The Descendants
Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close
The Help
Midnight in Paris
The Tree of Life
War Horse

Ok, first off....How the hell is Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close on this list? The film is currently "Rotten" at rottentomatoes.com, and I've seen it on quite a few "worst" lists this year. Of course, we all know why. It's Oscar-bait, big stars in an "important" movie with a precious little boy dealing with the aftermath of 9/11. It's a "powerful story" Oscar checklist, and the Academy bought in, no matter the poor reception. I felt much the same way about The King's Speech (which was the "historical drama" Oscar checklist), except that film was actually good (if not really the "best picture"), and this one, well...it isn't winning shit.

Outside of that, I really have no huge problem with this list. The Tree of Life is probably more divisive, but less cloying. I really wish the Academy had stepped up, ejected EL&IC, and brought it up to a full 10 with Drive and Warrior.

Who I want to win: Hugo, all the way.
Who will win: I have a sinking feeling The Artist. (I liked it a lot, but there are better films on this list)
Possible Surprise: The Help (How guilty are you feeling, Hollywood?) 

Best Director
Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist
Alexander Payne, The Descendants
Martin Scorsese, Hugo
Woody Allen, Midnight in Paris
Terrence Malick, The Tree of Life

Hmmm. Dullsville. They're all traditionalists (yes, even Malick), and Hazanavicius, in particular, the whole point was to do nothing new, at all. In the last few years, we've had great, audacious, visual directors, who can still make their films about character and story. Aronofsky, Fincher and Nolan are all overdue for an Oscar (I'm still pissed off that Nolan didn't even get a nomination for Inception). Granted, Nolan and Aronofsky didn't have films this year, and Fincher's was a remake. So, this is what we have. Points to Marty for grabbing a hold of the 3-D technology, learning how to do it right, and using it in ways that make sense artistically and thematically.

Who I want to win: Scorsese
Who will win: again, sinking feeling about Hazanavicius
Possible Surprise: Malick (he's a true artist, and he's due)

Best Actor
Demián Bichir, A Better Life
George Clooney, The Descendants
Jean Dujardin, The Artist
Gary Oldman, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Brad Pitt, Moneyball

Let's be crystal clear; Oldman better win this fucker. I liked all the other performances here, that I've seen, which is all but one, but Oldman was amazing as George Smiley. Not only that, but the guy more than deserves the recognition for his entire career. It's hard to fathom he's never been nominated, let alone won.

Who I want to win: Oldman
Who will win: I'm sinking again, about Dujardin
Possible Surprise: Bichir (he got nominated out of left field, who knows?)

Best Actress
Viola Davis, The Help
Glenn Close, Albert Nobbs
Rooney Mara, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Meryl Streep, The Iron Lady
Michelle Williams, My Week With Marilyn

How much does the acting branch love Meryl Streep? Lots. Really, the lady deserves it, outside of Mama Mia (which was in no way her fault), I can't think of a single embarrassing project or performance (Shut up about She-Devil). I think we also have to acknowledge that Rooney Mara's inclusion is more indicative of the weak slate of female roles this year, rather than the role itself. I'd also say that Viola Davis and (reportedly) Glenn Close gave terrific performances that overcame weak scripts.

Who I want to win: Davis
Who will win: Streep
Possible Surprise: Williams (Not much of a surprise)

Best Supporting Actor
Kenneth Branagh, My Week With Marilyn
Jonah Hill, Moneyball
Nick Nolte, Warrior
Christopher Plummer, Beginners
Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

First off, how about that Jonah Hill? It's a well-earned nomination, and it'll make people forget The Sitter. He'll never win, but still. My favorite thing here is the inclusion of Nick Nolte from the overlooked Warrior. It's a great film, and you should make time to see it. Even with the, again, inexplicable Von Sydow nomination (maybe he's great, I don't know, still...48% ROTTEN), this is a really competitive category.

Who I want to win: Nolte
Who will win: Plummer
Possible Surprise: Branagh

Best Supporting Actress
Bérénice Bejo, The Artist
Jessica Chastain, The Help
Melissa McCarthy, Bridesmaids
Janet McTeer, Albert Nobbs
Octavia Spencer, The Help

This one is kind of a done deal, for me. As much as I'd like to see Melissa McCarthy win for a big comedy role, and as much as I enjoyed Bérénice Bejo and Jessica Chastain, Octavia Spencer is taking the golden man home. She wants it, and the performance was good enough (again, better than the material) that the acting branch will want to give it to her.

Who I want to win: Spencer
Who will win: Spencer
Possible Surprise: McCarthy (People do love her. Who knows?)

Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
The Descendants
The Ides of March
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

There is a lot of worthy work in this category, with one exception. The Ides of March just simply added too much to Beau Wilmington's play Farragut North. What was a fairly tight little drama about politics really not being about policies, at all, became side tracked into talking about how worthy the candidate is, and ultimately told a story we've seen several times before. Otherwise, nothing but good stuff here. From taking the dry facts and figures of Moneyball, and turning them into a moving story, to distilling a novel that defines "sprawling" into a taut couple of hours with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Who I want to win: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Who will win: The Descendants
Possible Surprise: Moneyball

Best Writing (Original Screenplay)
The Artist
Margin Call
Midnight in Paris
A Separation

Nice to see Margin Call get a nod. Sometimes, I really get the idea that these writing categories become the "throw a bone" categories.  There's a damn good chance The Artist will take this, but I also wonder about the Bridesmaids nomination. It makes this one a very, very tough call.

Who I want to win: Bridesmaids
Who will win: The Artist
Possible Surprise: Bridesmaids 

Best Music (Original Song)
"Man or Muppet" from The Muppets
"Real in Rio" from Rio

Man, I bet there was cheers in the office when the Rio song got nominated, and then tears when they saw who they were up against. The sheer lack of nominees also shows that the new song nomination process just doesn't work.

Who I want to win: "Man or Muppet"
Who will win: "Man or Muppet"

Best Visual Effects
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
Real Steel
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The is the one technical category I'll delve into. Mainly because the rapid evolution of the industry has taken this category to the point where it is very, very close to being a performance one. The simple fact that there were calls in many groups (and not just VFX artists) for Andy Serkis to be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his motion-capture performance as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Never mind that Caesar was the main character, clearly the lead role, in the film. With the exception of Hugo, all of these nominees featured major characters who were, at least partially, CGI creations.

Now, I don't know if I'm completely on board with the idea of a motion capture performance being nominated, at this point. The reason is simply that, at this point, even the best motion capture work is being interpreted and manipulated by animators for the final result. It's likely that, at some point (maybe soon), the actor's performance on the set will drive, completely, the resulting animation. Much like how an actor learns to use and manipulate a make-up appliance for his performance. The make-up is created by someone else, but the actor is using it to drive his performance.

Right now that is not the case. The methods of recording the actor's work, as a guide to the animation are improving, but the animators, ultimately, are taking, or leaving, what they want. There is no doubt, of any kind that Serkis was a HUGE part of Caesar, as he also was of Gollum and King Kong, but, at this point, the process is, and the characters are, just too much the result of many hands for me to stand behind rewarding one of them.

All that is preface to saying that the Rise of the Planet of the Apes team did the most exceptional work this year, by far. Ceasar was a living, breathing personality that we followed through the story. We identified with him, we felt for and with him, and he carried the film. Both Serkis and the effect team deserve the win for that.

Who I want to win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Who will win: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Possible Surprise: Hugo

It's Really a Question of Money

I saw this blog shared on Facebook, and it made me want to respond. Madame Noir's post: Why Are We Expected To Line Up For Red Tails But Not Pariah

Go ahead and read it. It's worth considering.

Now, some folks out that might say that I'm in no position to comment on this, because I'm a white male. Fair enough. However, my response to that is that I'm a pretty aware, socially liberal guy who's always happy to see any minority get any sort of representation on screen. Especially when it's not in an exploitative or stereotypical way.

There is, however a number of things about Madam Noir's post I have trouble with, and which, right up front, I have trouble with having seen neither Red Tails or Pariah, yet.

First off, why is it a competition? These are two very different films that attempt to provide positive images of African Americans in very different ways. Why does Madam Noir feel the need to create some sort of feud here, even if she preferred Pariah, or found it more personally resonant? Why can't both do well? Of course, what she also kind of rushes past is that "doing well" is a vastly different thing for each of these pictures.

Red Tails has to be a labor of love for George Lucas. He, personally, ponied up 58 million dollars to make the film, 35 million dollars to distribute the film (Fox is the listed distributor, but would only handle the film if Lucas paid costs himself), and additional marketing costs. The total is somewhere in the range of 100 million dollars of his personal fortune in order to get this film in theaters. The costs are studio blockbuster big, but Red Tails is, technically, the most independent feature in theaters right now.

Does Lucas want to make money? Of course he does, and he's taking the steps he feels he needs to in order to A) gets butts in the seats, and B) make his money back. He couldn't get studio support, to offset his financial risk, because he wanted to make a big-budget, action-adventure blockbuster with a black director, black screenwriters, and an all-black cast.

"Mr. Star Wars" couldn't get a studio to take a risk on a picture like this. How could Spike Lee? Or John Singleton? Or any African-American filmmaker with an idea, and a desire to get something grand and epic on the screen? Lucas had deep pockets, and made it happen all on his own. Those other guys could not make that happen.

Pariah, on the other hand, according to this fundraising website, had a budget of 350 thousand dollars. Or, that was the goal, anyway, it may be less. The film was purchased by Focus Features at the 2011 Sundance film festival, and along with that, writer/director Dee Rees made a deal to develop another script for Focus. I can't find actual sale price for the film, but seeing as how there was a bidding war, I'm willing to bet Pariah's backers, and Dee Rees,  walked away with at least a bit of profit almost a year before the film even opened.

That is absolutely awesome. It's a victory, and I'm very happy that Rees will now have the opportunity to continue to make her voice heard. By making a good film, she assured her ability to do that. Everyone should be inspired by that.

The point being, these films have hugely different goals, and hugely different scales on which to compute their "success." The question Lucas is raising is along the lines of "why can't Spike Lee get the studio backing to make a 100 million, or even 50 million dollar film?" Spike Lee can probably walk into any studio with a 350 thousand dollar script and get a deal, because the studio can see the profit potential, but at a certain level, a certain budget, the perception of profit goes away. Lucas is trying to prove that's not the case.

Studios and distributors will take a chance on a low budget, up-from-the-gutters film like Pariah, because, historically, audiences will turn out for it. Executives can point to Precious, or Do The Right Thing, or Boyz in the Hood, and say, "this is what we can expect in business from a 'black' film." Lots of hay is made about racism in Hollywood, but, when you come right down to it, it's about money.

Tyler Perry is a success for one reason. It's not because studios and executives think he's the be-all, end-all, in terms of talent, or because he strikes them as "safe." It's because he always makes films for a certain price, and they make a certain amount of profit. The studio could care less about his "christian values," or the color of his skin. He makes them money, period.

Ultimately, that's why Red Tails, and it's success or failure, could have a greater impact on the future of African-American filmmakers than the success or failure of Pariah. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of either film (and, again, I've seen neither), but with expanding the idea of what a viable "black film" is.

Let's be honest, how many films have we seen about a black kid, living in a slum with abusive parents, gang violence, and struggling for redemption? Quite a few. How many have we seen where a group of young black men become heroes of World War II? Only one I can think of.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Book Well Worth Reading

I kinda stumbled onto this book just surfing around amazon.com. The cover was very striking, and being a great admirer of Eastwood, I thought, "what the hell?" Let me say that taking the time to read Conversations with Clint: Paul Nelson's Lost Interviews with Clint Eastwood, 1979-1983 was one of the better chances I've ever taken.

The book consists of transcriptions of taped conversations between Paul Nelson, who had been Rolling Stone's music review editor, and Clint Eastwood. These were intended to produce a Rolling Stone cover story, a story that was scheduled, re-scheduled, and ultimately, cancelled. The project apparently (I can only go by what's in the material presented within the book) fell victim to Nelson's OCD tendencies and writer's block.

As a person who finds Eastwood brilliant, in almost every facet of his career, this book is truly like candy. I finished it within two days. Nelson clearly views Eastwood as a true artist, as well. Personally, I can't imagine anyone seeing The Outlaw Josey Wales and not understanding that Eastwood, both in front of and behind the camera, is something special.

The discussion is fairly rambling, but has been edited into a chronological format, based on Eastwood's career. They touch on the Leone westerns, Dirty Harry (Nelson even bought a Smith and Wesson .44 Magnum, he loved the film so much), Eastwood's directorial debut Play Misty for Me, the Harry sequels, Every Which Way but Loose and it's sequel, Bronco Billy, etc, etc. It's a nice snapshot of Eastwood in his period of (arguably) greatest success, but before he was embraced by the critical mass as a true force. A transition that, really, didn't happen until The Unforgiven in 1992 (man, so long ago).

What's truly interesting is seeing how clear Eastwood's vision was of how to do things, even then. His clarity on art, and his own expression, really ought to be envied. There's a particularly wonderful conversation where Warren Zevon joins Eastwood and Nelson, and they delve into the only Dirty Harry film Clint directed himself, 1983's Sudden Impact. There's a bit of bemoaning at the fact that the ending of the film, which deals with Callahan encountering a woman (Sondra Locke) systematically murdering the group which had raped her and her sister years earlier, leaves the audience with many, many questions about capital punishment, justice and retribution, would never be seriously considered. Never, because it's a "dumb action movie."

To be fair, despite spawning the most well-known Dirty Harry catchphrase ("Go, ahead. Make my day."), Sudden Impact is a lesser Dirty Harry movie. Very, very, very 80's, the villains feel even more over-the-top and ridiculous than Andrew Robinson's intentionally "all the way" (and terrifying) performance as the Scorpio killer in the 1971 original. Harry had also moved beyond what the original film was, a tough-minded detective film, into a sort of mythic caricature. Eastwood was climbing a big hill to try to re-inject some of the moral uncertainty that Dirty Harry absolutely wallowed in.

I could go on for hours about how Dirty Harry is anything but the "fascist pornography" that some of the Left like to pigeonhole it as. That's for another blog. Although, Eastwood himself makes many of the same points I would in this book.

What becomes clear is that, at a time when it wasn't fashionable to do so, Eastwood knows that the only criteria he can have about doing a picture, or not, is his own taste. Every movie he's done, be it Firefox or Honkytonk Man, were because he liked the material. He's driven by story, and believes in the primacy of that as a reason audiences respond to a film.

In any case, Conversations with Clint is an amazing read for anyone who'd like to get a little further inside the mind of a filmmaker who clearly is now, and I think was then, a master of his craft.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Stuck In My Head 1.20.2012

A little different today...an instrumental.

I've had the honor of watching Eric Johnson play twice. Once was at an "Experience Hendrix" concert, and he only played Hendrix tunes, the sound wasn't great, and I was in the balcony.

But I saw him in the mid-90's at the Ranch Bowl in Omaha. A bowling alley with a bar/concert venue attached. It was really stunning to see him about 10 feet away. The guy is just a master of tone, and his fretwork is unreal. A true genius.

Cliffs of Dover
by Eric Johnson

Thursday, January 19, 2012

This is Suddenly a Much Better Day

Springsteen's new album, Wrecking Ball, due on March 6th.

Already pre-ordered? Oh, hells yes. I love the cover, much more than the Working on a Dream artwork. (Did I say I want to buy a Telecaster? I REALLY want to buy a Telecaster...) Of course, that was a hopeful record, and I have more than a sneaking suspicion this album is going to trend darker.

The first single, "We Take Care of Our Own" has dropped, too. (video below) Lyrically, anyway, I think it backs the "darker album" impression. It seems to follow the Springsteen "tension between the tone of the lyrics, and the tone of the music" formula. Classic E-Street sound, with one exception...

No Clarence.

No Big Man.

No sax at all, to my ears, on first listen, which seems appropriate. I can't lie and say things won't be different without him there on the albums and in the concerts. It's tough, but neither am I feeling that I want Clarence's passing to be the end of the E-Street Nation. That would be a crime, because this band is still one of the best on the planet.

Different isn't bad. It's just different. Rest In Peace, Big Man...I have a feeling that there's going to be a lot of tributes to you during the upcoming tour.


Here's our Track list:

1. We Take Care of Our Own
2. Easy Money
3. Shackled and Drawn
4. Jack of All Trades
5. Death to My Hometown
6. This Depression
7. Wrecking Ball
8. You’ve Got It
9. Rocky Ground
10. Land of Hope and Dreams
11. We Are Alive

A special edition of Wrecking Ball will also be available including exclusive artwork and photography and two bonus tracks:
12. Swallowed Up
13. American Land

Some thoughts: I'm a little surprised to see (I'm guessing) studio versions of "Land of Hope and Dreams" and "Wrecking Ball," previously released pretty widely with live versions.Yet another version of "American Land?" I would guess it's the full E-Street band version that closed all the shows for the last couple of tours. It's cool, but...hey, I've already got that version on the "Live in Hyde Park" Blu-ray.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

2011 End of Year Wrap-Up

Well, it's finally come to a point where I can't put it off any longer. There's still a film or two I'd like to have seen, but we're almost 3 weeks into the new year, and I think I've pushed it too far. So, without further ado...


Movies are my bread and butter with this blog. I love movies, all kinds of films, but I also confess, I am a real fan of films that never forget that entertainment is part of the equation. I deeply admire films that have things to say, while also making me clap and cheer. I'm a populist.

The Best

10 - Captain America: The First Avenger
A good, old-fashioned, feel-good action film. What was most heartening about Joe Johnston's film was the deep understanding of exactly who Steve Rogers/Captain America is, and why the ultimate physical change into a super-soldier was only releasing a hero that was already there. Johnston's perfect execution of a film of the 40's should be no surprise, after all, this is the man who made the sadly underrated The Rocketeer. Chris Evans absolutely nails a role that could so easily have spun out of control.

9 - Crazy, Stupid Love
Romantic comedy can so easily become embarrassing. It's so painful when you see stories cobbled together from other movies, with a "new twist" that really amounts to zilch, and a cast that you just know are there because their agent told them they needed to up their Q-rating with women. It's almost a shock when you see one populated with real characters, and the complications (while still a little coincidental) stem from the characters, rather than needing to engage a plot point. Steve Carrell, and Ryan Gosling are fantastic, and matched point-for-point by Julianne Moore and Emma Stone.

8 - Win Win
I love watching Paul Giamatti. I just do, there's something utterly compelling about the way he inhabits men on the verge of utter destruction. The way he can play a man doing despicable things, but put enough soul and heart in his eyes that you see why he has to. Here we find him as a near-destitute lawyer engaging in a scheme to embezzle money from an aging client, and then surprisingly finding himself a surrogate father to the man's grandson. It sounds like soap-opera, tear-jerker claptrap, but Giamatti finds the anchor to allow us to believe, and root for him to start healing not only the boy, but himself. Newcomer Alex Shaffer also shines as the boy.

7 - Moneyball
The last thing I expected to happen during a movie about applying mathematics to baseball was for me to start crying. This was the last 2011 film I considered for this list (saw it yesterday), and I was really unprepared for how emotional I got about it. Brad Pitt shines as Billy Beane, and Jonah Hill finally distinguishes himself as something other than "that fat kid that likes to draw penises." I've seen some criticisms about the events that this film dramatizes as "making baseball about computers," but I think the film makes a hell of a point that those computers, and the different mode of thought they pointed to, allowed players who had been deemed "useless" to shine again. Personified so well by Chris Pratt as Scott Hatteburg. Well done, made me want to read the book and learn more.

6 - The Guard
The film on my list I'd guess you are most likely not to have seen. Really, it lives and dies on the amazing performance by Brendan Gleeson. He is, simply, extraordinary. He inhabits Sergeant Gerry Boyle, a small-town Irish cop, who loves his dying mother, as well as prostitutes, isn't above letting a few things slide, but also knows the score in his town better than anyone. Gerry is content, he's set up a comfortable existence for himself, but with the arrival of FBI agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) events begin to close in, and conspire to drive Gerry to make a choice, and take a stand. Brilliantly funny, wonderfully acted, and also deeply moving.

5 - Warrior
I'll fight for this one. It's not a rip-off of The Fighter. It's not a do-over of Rocky. It stands on it's own as a story of a damaged family and how, even years after the fact, love can run deep, and be displayed in the strangest and most unexpected of ways. There are at least three powerhouse performances here, Nick Nolte as patriarch Paddy Conlon, and Joel Edgerton and Tom Hardy as brothers Brendan and Tommy. Hardy, in particular, is a force of nature in this film, his objective is set, and he simply smashes his way right to it. It's breathtaking, and I found myself, again, marveling that this is the same actor that played Jean-Luc Picard's clone in Star Trek: Nemesis. Absolutely thrilling to the final minutes.

4 - The Trip
I haven't laughed more in a theatre this year. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel across England, enjoying elegant meals (ostensibly for a magazine article), and driving each other crazy. The film itself is culled from a BBC television series, which I hope, eventually, gets a US release in some form, because I'd like to see more. Ultimately, I'm going to tell you to see it because it's drop-dead funny., but it also contains volumes about friendship, jealousy, family and relationships. Plus, they both do pretty wicked Michael Caine impressions.

3 - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
You want to know when you're watching a really good period film? If somebody told me Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy had actually been made in 1979, I'd believe them. Wonderful performances all around, anchored by the amazing Gary Oldman as George Smiley, a gripping spy yarn that hangs on watching people do their jobs really well. No explosions, no sensationalism, violence that it truly horrific, and a personal story that reverberates to engulf the entire world. In many ways, that is the coolest thing in the movie. Seeing how tiny choices affect and alter the massive game of chess that was the cold war between the East and the West.

2 - Rise of the Planet of the Apes
There was a part of me that said, "you can't do that. You can't put that at number two, not that high." I moved it down , I moved it up, I thought long and hard about it. It doesn't matter that it's a remake/reboot of 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (although, technically, I think of it simply as a prequel to the 1968 original). It's one of the best experiences I had in a theatre this year, and, yes, that might be partly because I wasn't expecting it. Andy Serkis does tremendous motion-capture work as Caesar, the hyper-intelligent Chimp that will eventually lead an escape of his brethren. That's actually one of the things I most loved, the ultimate goal of the apes here is really not much more than crossing a bridge, while other factors swirl to show the mounting forces that will, ultimately, change the world. It's sharp, forward-thinking franchise building, all while actually making a point about treatment of animals, class warfare, and any number of other allegorical subjects. Terrific blockbuster filmmaking.

1 - Hugo
Ah, Marty, you glorious softie, you. Nothing I've seen this year approaches the beauty of what Martin Scorsese created with elegant GCI, and subtle, precise 3-D. It's immersive and never jarring, the train station where Hugo lives is full of life, and seems to swirl around us. Even beyond the technical artistry on display, Hugo is such a huge-hearted love letter to early cinema, and the great Georges Meilies, in particular, that the idea that Scorsese is pushing the medium seems absolutely correct. (I can imagine that Melies would've absolutely flipped at the idea of 3-D). The performances are exquisite, the story simple but emotionally gripping, with a clear plea for the love and protection of art. It is, simply, everything I love about film.

Close, but no cigar list:
(No particular order)
War Horse, X-Men: First Class, The Descendants, The Artist

I Know I'm Gonna Kick Myself For Not Seeing It

Every year there's a film I just, somehow, fail to see that, when I do see it, I just kick myself for hours. The Hurt Locker is a great example from the past. If I had seen that film when I put together my 2009 list, It would've likely been number one, but I hadn't.

Love Ryan Gosling. CByrd wanted to see this, being a huge fan, but, knowing that the film was far more violent than the ad campaign let on, I kind of waved her off. Of course, some idiots also got the idea it was some sort of The Fast and the Furious clone, and think that's a reason to sue. (God help us) I always figured I'd see it at some point, but I didn't. I'm certain it's very, very cool, and I look forward to the Blu-Ray.

The Worst 

As I usually say each year...I try not to see bad movies. Occasionally, I do, and I'll spotlight that/those films here. Otherwise, I take this space to point out movies that actually got made, people invested money in them, a studio said "yes, let's put this out!" and our world is poorer for it.

One last thought; Green Lantern has lots of problems, but anyone who thinks that was the worst movie of the year, needs to be held down to watch a Martin Lawrence film on a loop for 12 hours.

Season of the Witch (Nic Cage, as you've always wanted: in a LOTR wanna-be)
No Strings Attached (Portman and Kutcher in a casual sex comedy..and she doesn't get naked!)
Justin Beiber: Never Say Never (**hurp**)
Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son (Who wanted this film? WHO?)
I Am Number Four/Beastly (If we put this kid in two movies that come out within 3 weeks of each other, he'll just automatically be a star, right?)
Red Riding Hood ("From the Director of Twilight"  **double hurp**)
Sucker Punch (Zach Snyder's "vision" means cribbing from every anime he's ever seen)
Arthur (You, sir are no Dudley Moore, or even Liza Minnelli)

Jesus, I can't even go on...this is too depressing.


The fact is, I don't listen to a lot of new music. I don't. I prefer older artists, and that's pretty much the way it is. 

The Best 

10 - Mastodon - Live at the Aragon 
At the heart, it's just a live performance of their last album, but I found it quite exciting to listen to. Yeah, in some cases it exposes a certain weakness, vocal-wise, but I admire that the band is willing to let that just hang out there, and not try to "fix" it.

9 - Jeff Bridges - Jeff Bridges
For me, just a fun album to listen to. Bridges has a nice, understated delivery, and the "What a Little Bit of Love Can Do" single is really catchy and fun. A comfort album, I admit.


8 - Dropkick Murphys - Going Out in Style 
Ah, Boston Irish punk rock. Infectious in it's power and energy. Picked it up mainly for the "Peg 'o My Heart" duet with Springsteen. Very, very glad I did. Too much fun.


7 - Black Country Communion - 2 
A huge improvement over the first album, which seemed a bit too calculated and manufactured. With the second disk, I feel the band itself taking the reins from producer Kevin "Caveman" Shirley, and it's a good thing. Much more organic and natural.


6 - Chickenfoot - III 
Seasoned players having a good time together. That's what the first album was, but now they've upped their game for the sophomore release. More cohesive, better lyrics, and Michael Anthony just comes alive on bass after years being in everyone's shadow. One of the more fun albums to listen to this year.


5 - Rush - Time Machine: Live in Cleveland 2011 
Did y'know I love Rush? I'm not sure if I've made that, y'know, clear to folks. Simply it's a terrific live set from one of my absolute favorite bands. The boys are playing spectacularly, and they do "Marathon!!"

4 - Foo Fighters - Wasting Light 
I really missed the boat on the Foo Fighters the first time around. It's only in the last few years that I've really grabbed onto them. While this isn't my favorite Foos record, it's a damn fine album. Yeah, yeah, recorded analog...

3 - Black Label Society  -
The Song Remains Not The Same
I am a huge Zakk Wylde fan, but I've alwasy had a hard time with the Black Label Society records. I think, as I've moved beyond my "all metal, all the time" days, I've really longed to hear him experiment more in the Pride & Glory southern rock and Book of Shadows acoustic vein. Well, here we have BLS re-cutting acoustic versions of some of their tracks, as well as a few really nice covers. (Zakk Wylde sings "Bridge Over Troubled Waters?" Who knew? Well, I did, but that's beside the point.) A welcome return to this sound.

2 - Slash Featuring Myles Kennedy - Live in Stoke
I have a great love of Slash. I think he's a solid rock guitarist, not flashy, but committed to groove and bringing some power with blues-based riffing. You can't argue that much of the greatness of Appetite For Destruction came from his guitar work. Here's a live set with his solo touring band, featuring Myles Kennedy, who's fast becoming one of my favorite vocalists. There's nothing new here, but it's a solid live album with a lot of talent involved, recorded well with a lot of great songs. I've spun it a lot since it's release.

1 - Mastodon - The Hunter
Mastodon came out of nowhere for me a couple of years ago. I had written them off as yet another "cookie monster vocal" metal band, but, with Crack the Skye, I started to see more vocal progression, and I liked it a lot. What I can happily say is that The Hunter continues the evolution. It's a stripped-down album, no large concept, just a collection of truly killer tracks. The playing is impeccable, the production clean a crisp, and the songs offer a wide range of feels and styles. Everything from the southern-rock style "Curl of the Burl" to the elegant (I almost want to compare it to Pink Floyd, but that doesn't quite fit) "The Creature Lives."

Most Disappointing 

Anthrax - Worship Music & Dream Theater - A Dramatic Turn of Events

In both of these cases, the bands were returning after some strife and personnel shake-ups. In both cases, I wanted to really like these records, but now, months later, I can't say that either one of these records has made any real impact with me. The Anthrax release, in particular, just dies on the vine in my opinion, and I'm fairly baffled by the year-end kudos that some folks have heaped upon it. Dream Theater was a case where I couldn't, personally, even tell that any change in line-up had happened, at all. Sadly, DT was as hit-or-miss as they usually are with me. (I still love Falling into Infinity more and more). I wanted to be wowed, and I just wasn't.

Favorite Single

Easy. "Curl of the Burl" off Mastodon's The Hunter. It's, literally, the only song this year that, upon first listen, I sat up and said "I want that album."

Books/Comics/Reading Material

Generally speaking, 2011, with my fantastic birthday present of a Kindle, represented a re-awakening of my desire to read. I have been inhaling books since I received the Kindle. Now, relatively few of them were from 2011, so this section is going to be kinda sparse. I hope, now that I've, once again, been schooled in the joys of digital media, I can have a more up-to-date reading list in the future.

The Best Books

4 - Zombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt
Patton Oswalt is "my" comedian. His observations and humor are aimed right at me. This is a very slight book, it was a quick read, but it was also a book that I identified with and found moving and hilarious. It's not great literature, but it's a book that felt like a reflection of my life. Others might completely write it off, but this is my list.

3- It's So Easy (and Other Lies) by Duff Mckagan
I simply trust this book more than any of the unauthorized bios that have come out about Guns 'N Roses, and I think Duff just has a clearer picture of what went on than Slash. Mckagan presents a pretty clear picture of who he is, and how he got there, the work he had to do on himself to make it turn out as well as it has. It's a rather inspiring book. He comes off as sweet, hard-working and loyal. The kind of book that makes you feel you sat down with a friend and shot the shit.

2- Supergods: What Masked Vigilantes, Miraculous Mutants, and a Sun God from Smallville Can Teach Us About Being Human by Grant Morrison
A truly odd book, but also a book that asks us to believe as fervently in the power of our superhero myths as the author does. Morrison is a believer, and he lays out a history of comics concurrent with his own beliefs about alternate worlds and the power that they can exert over our own. It's heady stuff, hard to swallow, but I also don't think Morrison overly cares. His platform is to, basically, say that these characters are designed to show us how to be better people, they can still do that, and will always do that, as long as we get the hell out of our own way and believe in them. Not necessarily as "real people," but as concepts and symbols. It's a powerful statement.

1- Life Itself: A Memoir by Roger Ebert
It was pretty easy to come up with the book that moved me the most this year. Don't be put off by the fact that much of the material in Life Itself started as blog entries, because Ebert's expansions and explorations of the concepts that started in the blog are truly moving and wonderful. As his body has become less able to express for him, Ebert's skills and talent as a writer have exploded. This book left me in tears several times, and laughing out loud even more often. His insights have only grown sharper, and his ability to convey those insights is truly astounding. I marvel at this man's life, and I hope that, when my twilight years approach, I can look back and see as much as Ebert does. Sadly, I doubt that will be the case. A must read.

Comics - An Overview

Warning: I am mainstream publisher-centric

DC Comics

2011 will probably, at least for the foreseeable future, be known as "The Year of the New 52." DC comics took the aggressive step of rebooting it's entire line of books, cancelling every title, and restarting with 52 first issue titles. Some series showed little upheaval (Green Lantern, the Batman titles), while others were torn down to the foundation and rebuilt (Superman, Wonder Woman). It was such a massive undertaking that I think people don't give Dan Didio and the company enough credit.

Yes, there were some duds. There were titles replaced with less than stellar results (All-Star Western is a fine book, but Jonah Hex was brilliance on toast), but, overall, the team managed to reinvigorate the line, and spike interest, in terms of sales. People act like a few non-starters in a field of 52 is a unacceptable failure rate. It isn't.

Sure, some things are still playing out. I still don't really have a handle on what Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's Justice League is going to be like, and Grant Morrison's Action Comics is just grinding, as far as I'm concerned. That's OK with me when Scott Snyder is kicking ass and taking names over on Batman. I'm willing to let the stuff play out, and see what the long game is.

Of course increased attention leads to increased criticism. I get utterly perplexed when Catwoman, a character and title that's almost entirely about sexual repression (Batman's) is suddenly "over the line" by doing exactly what every creator has done with the character since the 1940's. Yeah, they took it further with an actual sexual relationship between Batman and Catwoman, but still.

DC did make an attempt to expand the character roster, with, for the first time in a long while, titles headlined by characters of color. It remains to be seen if Mister Terrific or Blue Beetle will hold up in sales enough for that to last, but, if they don't, is that DC's fault? Or is it the fault of the fanbase?

At the end of the day, the New 52 really has to be seen as a positive move. I don't really see any downsides, other than in fanboy grousing about how they changed Red Robin's costume, or whatever. I endured months of that Batman: Incorporated "James Bond Batman" stuff, deal with it.

Oh, Batman: Incorporated is coming back? Great.

Marvel Comics

Don't they just make movies now?

I kid, but, truly, the only moves on Marvel's part that really excited me this year were the death of the Ultimate version of Peter Parker, his being replaced by Miles Morales, a *gasp* half-African-American/half-Latino kid, and Mark Waid making Daredevil great to read again.

Really, there is no under-selling what Brian Bendis pulled off with Ultimate Spider-Man. He gave Peter a hero's death that felt so very, very right, and introduced us to a new kid, who we quickly became enamored with. Not in the least because his entire desire to become Spider-Man (I won't go into origin details) stemmed from his respect and admiration of Peter Parker. We feel an intimate connection between Miles and Peter that makes the passing of the mantle feel right. What might've seemed cheap and exploitative at the announcement was justified when we actually read the books.

And how much shame I felt over the pure racist bullshit that bubbled out of fandom over this? More than I can even deal with sometimes. Aren't we supposed to be the inclusive ones?

We also had Mark Waid beginning a run on Daredevil that's the first time I've enjoyed the character in years. With his artist Paolo Rivera, he's made Daredevil FUN again, and tied him into the Marvel universe in ways that feel organic, and also cement DD as a power player. The only complaint I have is that I didn't want to pick up another title.

Oh, and Marvel put Steve rogers back in the Captain America suit again, where he belongs.

Just in time for the movie...amiright? Amiright?