Sunday, February 27, 2011

127 Hours (2010)

Well, I managed to see 9 out of the ten nominees for Best Picture. Sorry, The King's Speech, I'll see you after you win best picture in a few hours. (I waited too long and didn't do a whole entry of predictions, that's a freebie.) At any rate, I enjoyed this, not enough to crack my top ten, but I thought this was well done. Danny Boyle's visual dynamics really helped drive home the ideas of not only, in this case, man against himself, but man-against-nature. Franco does an admirable job, especially since he is basically the whole show. I still think Ryan Gosling should have gotten the nomination instead, but what can you do? He definitely holds his own-which is basically what he was there to do. Strange, though, to see Lizzy Caplan and Treat Williams in nonspeaking roles in flashbacks.

I do think James Franco can do a good job tonight as co-host. But we will see, these things are always interesting. Here's the thing, his whole life is some weird performance art so I can him getting into this. The problem is Anne Hathaway, who honestly, I'm not sure can be funny. But stranger things have happened.

An Englishman on The King's Speech's eventual win. Sort of.


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Blue Valentine (2010)

Go see this one with a significant other, and then prepare yourself for a long talk that night. Actually, you'll have a long talk with whomever you go see it with, its sure to dredge up something or other from down deep. I think what was most interesting was how much perspective plays into what we are watching, which is basically an acting tour-de-force, as we watch the rise and fall of a relationship that, really, probably shouldn't have happened in the first place. For instance, without giving anything away, I definitely thought that Ryan Gosling's character was most of the problem with the relationship, but in talking with Tina at the diner this morning I came around a bit. Sure his antics, so to speak, were the catalyst for things really and truly falling apart,. Tina helped me see that Michelle Williams, while definitely, maybe, the more "mature" of the two her emotional distance, or unwillingness to, in a sense, put her foot down, did no favors. Choices are (were) definitely made on both sides in the relationship, and two people that perhaps ultimately shouldn't have stayed together did, and they had to deal with the fallout. This is the fallout. It's really a remarkably written and performed by the two leads, and I can definitely say that Ryan Gosling was robbed here of an Oscar nomination. It's definitely not perfect, either by accident or by choice of the writer things were left to the imagination to ponder or fill in and sometimes things don't seem to fit. I was probably way too stuck on her horrible father and how they still maintained a relationship when he was a Grade-A Jerk when she still lived with them. But maybe that speaks to her issues with men in general. See? I could go on forever. That said, as good as this was, and I recognize that it was good, and the acting was really good, it's probably not something I am going to watch again soon just because it is that raw.


Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Animal Kingdom (2010)

Oops, sorry Social Network. Listen, I did actually enjoy you, but, in the end your stay on my top ten list of 2010 was always pretty tenuous. And it looks like it has been knocked off by Animal Kingdom. Man, this is pretty amazing stuff. I keep seeing it compared to Goodfellas, but I think only in the broadest sense. It's just as much about family, specifically about a young man, "J",  who gets shoved into the criminal side of his family after his mother's death, and the problems, to put it mildly, that arise from him being here. This movie is absolutely soaked with dread, which pretty much puts you ill at ease, guessing whats going to happen next.  Seriously, there is a scene early on that uses an Air Supply song and turns it on its head with suspense. I can see why Jacki Weaver, as Janine Cody, the patriarch of the clan was nominated for an Oscar, she's a scheming puppetmaster here. Such good stuff.


Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Love Affair With Radiohead: Part 1 - Pablo Honey

Anyone who knows me understands that my favorite band of all time is the Beatles.  But for me, to say that is almost not worth having a conversation over.  It’s not fair.  It’s like when my uncle Danny says that he can’t really enjoy most live shows because they don’t play 2 ½ - 3 hour blistering sets that Springsteen does on a regular basis.  He feels that just about every band should be held to that standard whereas I understand that Springsteen is an anomaly and to expect his energy and stamina from other live acts is simply unfair and not realistic.  For anyone who has seen Springsteen live, you understand that he is truly in a class by himself.  And so are the Beatles.  So if it ever comes up in conversation, I have to say that the Beatles are my all-time favorite, but I also say that my statement doesn’t really count because it’s unfair to compare all other bands to them.  So I quickly follow that point of information by stating that my other favorite band, the one that’s up for grabs and merely arguable, is Radiohead.  And they came through for me once again the other day with the release of their eighth album, The King of Limbs. 

This album was their second consecutive release that was distributed through internet downloads months before the scheduled CD release in stores.  As I downloaded the album Friday night, I was reminded of the other times in my life when I listened to a new Radiohead album for the first time, and I realized that I was about to embark on another historic musical milestone.  I could hardly contain myself.  This experience got me to thinking about all of their other albums and how they all play a critical role in my collection of music.  So I decided it would be a cool idea to start a series of blogs about each album and all the memories and feelings that each one brings about.  I knew this would be an intriguing and lengthy task for me but it is also well worth the time.  Because for me, listening to a new Radiohead album and trying to digest it is an experience unlike any other in music and no other band or artist has come close to generating the same level of interest, intensity, or excitement that Radiohead has.  This all started back in 1993 with their debut release, Pablo Honey.

The first time I had even heard of Radiohead was probably a similar way that most people heard of them.  The memory is one of my more faint ones for Radiohead but I do remember watching the video for “Creep” in the living room of my home in Canajoharie, NY.  It was in the spring and grunge rock was really coming through in the mainstream.  Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice and Chains all broke through with the new Seattle sound and with them came a flood of other grunge acts that defined rock for the next decade.  Some people, including one of the contributors to this blog (the one who never writes.....hint hint) have vilified that era as being a horrible time for rock, but I was way into it.  At least in the beginning.  My first impressions of Radiohead were actually not that special.  The "Creep" video was done in mostly dull and blurry colors and had a very grainy texture to it.  It started off very somber and chill as Yorke’s voice was at times indecipherable as he lazily sang his way through the first verse.  But then came the blistering chorus introduced by an urgent and violent strum of Johnny Greenwood’s guitar surrounded by flashing lights which took the song into a completely different direction.  Again, I wasn’t all that impressed by it, but I also didn’t hate it.  In fact, most of my opinions centered on how strange I thought the band looked.  Particularly Yorke and Greenwood.  I thought they weren’t that bad, but I also distinctly remember thinking that they would be just like any other alternative band at that time.  They surely would blend in with everyone else and eventually fade away in just a few short years.  

Despite my lackluster first impression of them, I did find myself purchasing a copy of their album shortly after this introduction at the Crossgates Mall in Albany.  I think the store was “Tape World” right near the movie theater.  And for some reason, I distinctly remember as I picked up a copy of Pablo Honey that I had a choice in the color of the case that it came in.  Half the CD’s came in black cases (as just about ever other CD came in at the time) and the other half were in yellow.  I was initially turned off by this oddly colored case and almost bought the black one.  But then I remembered the first tape I ever owned, Duran Duran’s live album, Arena.  That tape was a Christmas present and although I was psyched to finally have my own tape (which included my favorite song at the time,” Wild Boys” on it) but I was disappointed that it didn’t have the traditional black colored case that most tapes had.  No, this one was bright orange in color and I thought it was kinda lame.  I wanted a tape just like everyone else.  I didn’t want anything different, for that somehow made my possession all the less meaningful.  Evidently this bothered me so much that I eventually took that orange case off and switched it for a black one.  While this satisfied me for a period of time I later regretted that decision as I learned that most of the tapes I had were black in color, and I never saw another tape that came with an orange back.  I realized that having a tape with a different colored case was unique and special and I wanted it back.  I did not remember where I put that orange backing and for the life of me I was never able to find it ever again.  I still have my copy of Arena and sadly, the cover is still black.  I decided I didn’t want to make the same mistake twice and opted for the version of Pablo Honey in a yellow case.  To this day it remains the only CD in my collection of hundreds with a yellow case. 

I brought the album home and found myself really enjoying it.  I also made a point to open up the liner notes (a brief six page insert that included a track listing, the credits, two pictures of the band, and another picture of a rubber toy alligator and a live iguana).  Your guess is as good as mine.  But I do clearly remember staring at the picture of the band and matching the faces with the names.  I was on sort of a kick of familiarizing myself with the bands to which I was listening and I forced myself to learn the band names.  They were bizarre and kinda creepy looking and I wondered how they got together to form a band.  It was a question I posed to myself often during these years.  I was always amazed and curious as to how bands met and what events led up to them recording and releasing an album that had somehow found its way into my bedroom.  I still think that’s a great question, but I just don’t find myself thinking about it as much as I did back then.

I had the album on regular rotation as did many of my friends, so I got a lot of listens out of it.  I was surprised to learn that in the album version of “Creep”, Yorke didn’t say “very special” as he did in the video, but instead opted for the more profane and less radio-friendly “fucking special” which caused me to be sure I was near the volume control whenever it played so as to ensure my parents wouldn’t hear it and demand I never listen to it again.  So yeah, I was happy with my purchase and really dug how it started.  However, I usually stopped listening to the album after the first six songs.  I thought they were all great and I was particularly into “Anyone Can Play Guitar” ironically because of the cool-ass walking bass line.  

 But something about the second half of the album just lost me.  I can’t explain it or put it into words here but I just found the second half of the album boring.  The only song I played on purpose in the latter half of the album was the second recording of “Creep” which was really the censured version we all heard on MTV.  It was also the version I put on any mixed tape I made to guarantee I would not run into an awkward situation with my parents in the car as I insisted on playing my mixes on various trips.

Time went by and seven years later I found myself in Oakland, California living with six others in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps.  Radiohead had come to mean something so much more to me in the previous years and were becoming my favorite band of all time (refer to the first paragraph).  I loved all their albums but remembered not being that familiar with the second half of Pablo Honey.  I wondered if I had not given it much of a chance or if it was in fact, just not that good.  Perhaps they were merely a freshman band just trying to understand who they were and were trying to get the kinks out.  I listened to it the whole way through for the first time in years and could not believe what I was hearing.  The second half was not only good, it was quite possibly better than the first half.  The songs sounded familiar but they resonated so much more with me and I started to wonder what my problem was back in 1993.  And even more surprising is the fact that the second half of the album contains one of my all-time favorite Radiohead songs, “Lurgee”.  To me, it’s their most beautiful recording.  It gets me every time.

While Pablo Honey was just the beginning for Radiohead, it also represents their only mainstream/generic/top 40 rock-type sound.  Their follow-up album, The Bends is very much rock based but is also much more complex and clearly goes beyond the popular grunge-rock sounds of the mid-90’s.  And if you ever see Radiohead live these days, they hardly ever play songs off this album.  I've seen them five times and the only time I ever heard a song off Pablo Honey was in Colombia, Maryland when they played "Creep".  For years Yorke publicly stated that he hated that song but he eventually got over that and introduced it that night by saying "We like this song now".  So yes, Pablo Honey is somewhat generic in its nature.  Nobody at the time could have predicted what this band would become based solely on the content of this album.  Don’t get me wrong, it is extremely solid and very much underrated, but it doesn’t hold a candle to the creativity they started to unveil four years later and with every album since.  But I think that’s what I like so much about it.  For Radiohead is an extraordinarily complex band and their music can take months to digest.  Sometimes it’s nice to know that I can always go back to a more simple time when the standard framework of a rock band was at the forefront of their makeup.  And it’s also nice to know that they can create some great straight forward rock music.  I love their more experimental stuff, but every now and then I hope that they go back to a stronger rock sound, for as we’ll see with their second album, they proved themselves to be very good at doing just that.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Fell In Love With A Band

Last week I learned of some rather troubling news.  One of my all time favorite bands, the White Stripes, broke up after 14 years together for reasons not really specified, other than the fact that this decision will somehow allow fans to treasure their music even more.  There were no creative or personal differences cited, but they did mention that this decision was right for a myriad of reasons.  I suppose the true reasons for their breakup are inconsequential as the end result is still the same for me and for others, as fans.  Our beloved Stripes will no longer be making music together.  And I have mixed feelings about this.

For the past few years, whenever I have entered into a conversation with someone regarding favorite artists of all time, the White Stripes have consistently made it into my top five (along with the Beatles, Radiohead, Wilco, and yep, you guessed it, Guns n’ Roses).  Although I have found myself somewhat modifying this answer over the years a more appropriate response would be any Jack White band or project.  For the man is Rumpelstilskin to me and just turns everything he does into freaking gold.  In fact, I would venture to say that I like his second project, the Raconteurs, more than any of his other bands including the Stripes.  But my affinity for his music started with the Stripes and it is with that band that I will always hold the most special place for in my personal music archives.

The Stripes formed in the late 90’s during a time which can be most aptly described as the worst era for music (at least in my lifetime).  The late 90’s were horrible for rock music.  These were the years of rap-metal like Limp Bizkit,  311, and Linkin Park.  They were also the years of generic rock that the post grunge and alternative rock years produced such as Creed, Matchbox 20, Sugar Ray, and Smash Mouth.  Rock was having trouble finding its footing and while I still liked bands such as Pearl Jam, the Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins and others from the early to mid 90’s periods of rock, they were starting to fall off the map.  Alternative Country was starting to make its way into my catalogue and I will always be grateful for bands such as Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Son Volt, and the Jayhawks for turning me on to a new form of music.  But rock and roll was falling behind.  Until the introduction of the so-called “The Bands”

Along with The Strokes, The Hives, and The Vines, I remember the Stripes being one of the four bands that fit into this category of really reigning good rock music back into the mainstream or at least the public consciousness.  And while the Strokes had an amazing debut album, and the Hives giving one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen, the Stripes are clearly (for me) the greatest of the bunch.  (Looking back on all this, the Vines did not belong in this conversation.  ‘Overrated’ does not even begin to describe them).  The Stripes already had two albums before their breakthrough White Blood Cells and hit singles “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Hotel Yorba” were released and as I began to discover more of their music, I realized that they really could do no wrong.

I suppose what draws me so much to them is their raw energy.  They are the quintessential garage rock band.  Minimalist in their approach with just a guitar and drums, they prided themselves on keeping things simple, but raw.  They took the blues and punk and modified them with a more modern approach.  They didn’t try anything fancy and the whole sound was backed by Meg White’s overly simplistic drumming style that many chided her for as being amateurish.  Jack would say that Meg was the most important aspect of the band.  According to him, if you took her out the White Stripes could not exist.  He literally believed that she could not be replaced.  I’m not sure if that is entirely true, and I would suspect that it was her style that could not be replaced as I’m sure someone else could have copied what she did.  But that simple drumming style provided the backbone of the structure and identity of nearly every White Stripes song.  

I was fascinated by them almost from the beginning.  They were strange and unique and represented something that was sorely missing in the music scene.  They always wore a combination of red, white and while for most bands that would come across as cheesy or lame, the Stripes were somehow able to pull it off and still be respectable. I remember being confused over their relationship as most other fans were.  Were they brother and sister as Jack had always introduced them in their shows?  No.  It turns out they were married once and in a move I have yet to hear be equaled, Jack took Meg’s surname and turned from Jack Gillis to Jack White.  They divorced in 2000 right before they became household names and were somehow able to carry on creating some of their greatest music.

My favorite album is Elephant.  It represents the perfect crux of their simplistic garage rock sound infused with White’s greatest songwriting.  It’s the album in which they branched out a little bit more and added some layers to their sound without really changing it that much and keeping true to their format.  It has the best guitar licks and does not miss a beat from beginning to end.  It is actually one of those rare albums that ends better than it begins.  The last four songs in particular are stellar and it really leaves you wanting more.  Included in this progression of tracks are two of my all time favorites:

What a freaking riff.

In their subsequent albums; “Get Behind me, Satan” and “Icky Thump” they add even more instruments and polish their sound a little bit and somewhat deviate from their original sounds.  They perform more acoustic songs and even go country in some places.  I don’t think this was a poor decision and was a necessary one for them to take.  They had to try different sounds and come up with new approaches to their music as any reputable artist does.  And in doing so they came up with some of their greatest tracks:

Their last album was released in 2007 after Jack had formed The Raconteurs and I actually believed he would hold true to his promise that both bands were just as important as the other.  White has become one of the most respected and genuine artists of his generation and I believed he could carry on with two full-time bands so much that I thought he would have no problem adding a third band when The Dead Weather was created.  All the while he would produce albums by artists such as Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, appear in movies like Walk Hard and It Might Get Loud, and create movie soundtracks like Cold Mountain.  If you ever look at a list of all his projects, you have to wonder if this guy has time to even go to the bathroom. 

But I suppose all great things must come to an end.  In their latter years, the Stripes spent less time touring and even had to put a halt to a tour due to Meg’s reported ongoing anxiety issues.  Last year they released a live album and documentary called Under Great White Northern Lights which I have yet to see but also have no doubt is awesome.  I heard of rumors that a new Stripes album would make its way into the public this year.  And I was reminded of this two Thursdays ago when I heard “The Denial Twist” on XM Radio and thought to myself: “Oh man, I can’t wait for that new Stripes record to drop this year!”  To my surprise, this thought quickly fleeted my brain when I opened up my facebook account only to see that Kevin posted the article on my wall informing me that the Stripes had in fact broken up.  One of my all time favorites was finished.

I was really upset by this news at first and still am.  But I also got to thinking that this decision does make sense.  For while the Stripes are an amazing band, the best thing about them was their raw energy, stripped down production, and simple yet modernized blues and punk style.  There is only so much you can do with that.  Yes, they branched out more in the latter years and created some great music, but when I think about it, maybe they aren’t really a band who should be branching out all that much.  And maybe that’s what Jack meant when he said that they broke up so that fans could enjoy their music more.  He didn't want fans to get bored by them creating similar types of records.  For while Meg’s drumming might have provided the backdrop and core sound of the band, it was Jack’s songwriting and creative drive that was the true center of the band, and in all actuality, he is the one who needed to move on which is what he was doing with his other bands.  My guess is that he no longer had any interest in creating White Stripes type material and felt that he said all he needed to say with that band.  Any branching out or changing of his sounds really needed to come from other projects and bands.

A friend of mine mentioned that I should not get too down about this breakup as White still has two formidable bands he’s in and will no doubt keep going at a rapid pace turning out music whenever he can.  This is a very true statement and it's nice to know that for me, he is my generation’s greatest artist and I have no doubt he will continue to write, produce, and record amazing music.  It is that thought that keeps me positive and hopeful in the years to come.  But as I said earlier, I will forever hold the Stripes as his greatest achievement and credit them with changing the direction of rock music from something contrived, phony, generic, and boring, into something genuine, creative, raw, and amazing.  Thanks guys.  You'll surely be missed.


Monday, February 7, 2011

Just A Tip....

When you have a dentist appointment, it makes things a bit better mentally if you are thinking of this:

Instead of this:

Sorry the sound goes out for some reason in the first one. And, you're welcome.


Movie Round-Up

Okay, I am sure my cohorts here are sick of hearing about this, one being in sunny Spain and the other being in sunny Florida, but I think the Winter doldrums are really setting in up here. Usually this doesn't happen until, say, late February, but because January was so terrible here it is starting to set in early. And, usually, weather doesn't annoy or depress me, but I have to be honest here and say that Winter is defeating me this year. It feels like my head is constantly stuck in a snowdrift. Going out is somewhat difficult, not so much because the roads are bad but there is no guarantee you'll have a spot when you get back. I was invited to watch the Super Bowl at a friends' place that were just far enough away, and because I have been transformed into an old man with a sweater pocket full of Werther's, that it was actually prohibitive. Yeah, I guess that New England stiff upper lip was not passed down from generation to generation. The sun helped somewhat yesterday, we did get out and visit people,  which was good, but then I woke up grumpy this morning. So it goes. I'll just acknowledge it and move on...

Enough of that. I'll admit I haven't watched a lot of movies lately. Battlestar Galactica is available on Netflix Watch Instantly so I have been focused on going through that. So far, it is pretty great. I just finished Season 2 and watched the first episode of Season 3. And I don't get paid for this, but Netflix was awesome before, particularly for catching up on TV shows you missed, but when they come on Watch Instantly its even better, but I guess this goes without saying.

But here is what I have seen:

The Uninvited (2009)
I'll just say that I caught this by accident on HBO on two consecutive days. I will admit that I started watching it once then fell asleep, and then caught it by accident the next day and finished it up, I guess I was intrigued by where it was going or might go. So I guess that's something right there. But in the end, it wasn't that engaging, another remake of a Japanese movie/ghost story. Although some of the images, particular of the areas on the water where the girls lived were very pretty, and I kept wondering how David Straithairn and Elizabeth Banks got themselves roped into this. (Just kidding, I know it was money, hey gotta true new things, I suppose.) So yeah, in the end, fairly lame, with (spoiler!) a ludicrous twist ending.

Sunshine Cleaning (2008)
So one night the Mrs. and I were looking around our Watch Instantly queue for something somewhat lighthearted to watch, and we came upon this which has been sitting in our queue for a while now. So we decided to go for it. Fascinating story, no? Anyway, this is your fairly typical indie movie about a small town girl who seems to have gotten stuck in said small town and is trying to improve her circumstances. Here she tries to improve them by starting a business in which she cleans up crime scenes. I'll give it points for morbid originality here, but beyond that there's still not much you haven't seen before, even in the sad tone that much of it sets. Still Amy Adams and Alan Arkin are good as usual as daughter and father.

Gasland (2010)
Everything I seem to be catching lately I seem to be catching by accident. This is no different, but was so engrossing we ended up watching it all. This focuses on natural gas mining and the fairly recent relaxation of environmental standards and how that effects areas (which seems like everywhere) where this mining is occurring. If you want to be infuriated, watch this documentary. I know this goes without saying but it is heartbreaking and makes you angry to see normal, hardworking people's lives being disrupted in awful ways, across the country, pretty much because Dick Cheney and Halliburton and their friends didn't want any regulations stopping them from mining natural gas. If you ever have the chance, you should check it out, honestly the problem is so widespread, but its something I have rarely, if ever, heard about.

One last thing, The A.V. Club had a talk with Delroy Lindo about his various TV and movie roles. Its worth a read. But mostly it gives me an opportunity to say, once again, that Delroy Lindo is not as big or famous as I think he really deserves to be.