Saturday, March 22, 2014

Krull - 1983

Krull isn't exactly what I would call a great film, but it's a fun film with imagination to spare, and any time there is sci-fi or fantasy that is even half-way decent, I feel the need to support it. Krull exists in the sort of Flash Gordon world of something that isn't quite camp, isn't quite nostalgia and isn't quite retro, but certainly isn't modern. It's a film that doesn't sit squarely in any camp, and that made it something of an odd man out, but no less worthy of your attention.

It's hard to say which half is stronger - the fantasy or the sci-fi. The core conceit is very fantasy: a princess and a prince are scheduled to be married to form an alliance between two rival kingdoms, so that those two can unite against a greater foe. The wedding is attacked (by said greater foe, naturally - the ominously named Beast and his army of Slayers) before it is completed, the princess is kidnapped and the prince is the only survivor. As the hero recovers, he learns he must seek out a mystical weapon known as "the Glaive" and travel to the Black Fortress, a mysterious building that moves every day at sunrise.

All very fantasy, right? Well, check out what one of the Slayers looks like. That armor, that sort of insectoid approach... it's all very alien. They have laser weapons! And yet they still ride horses! Talk about your odd mishmashes!

I can't tell you that Krull is a great film, because I'd be stretching the truth there, but it is a fun film, filled with imagination that is bursting out of the seams at every opportunity, and it also includes a very young Liam Neeson as one of the bandits who helps the prince along his quest. Critics didn't care for the film at all during it's time, calling it nonsensical and boring. While I can understand (and even agree with) the nonsensical, I certainly wouldn't call Krull boring. It strikes me as the kind of "well, why not" approach to storytelling that can make for some fun stories. The prince is a fun character and is going through the typical hero's journey, but the lack of distinction between the sci-fi elements and the fantasy elements tends to put people looking for their films to "make sense" off-guard. (Many of these people also don't really understand the appeal of "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension," so what do we care what they think?) To me, this is the kind of over-the-top film that used to be standard Saturday afternoon fare, with larger-than-life heroes and villains. I think if they had stripped away either the sci-fi element, or the fantasy element, or both, this would've been better received, but it certainly would've also been a lot less memorable. If you can't turn off your need to question why things are the way they are, then Krull isn't for you, but for those of you who aren't afraid to dream big and don't mind things being a little silly along the way (and, y'know, watching films with 1980s-era special effects, which rarely age well), I think you'll find Krull has a big heart and great sense of wonder to it.

Friday, March 21, 2014

The Samples - No Room - 1992

Back in 1993, I was just a junior in high school, and my life was starting to get particularly complicated. The month was January, and I'd just gotten into my first real relationship, with a girl named Julie, who was a year younger than me. I'm not exactly sure how we met, but I think it was as part of one of the student plays. Before the school year ended, the relationship would be over and we would both go our separate ways. We wouldn't really talk much afterwards, and I've still been a bit unclear as to why the relationship ended, other than she wasn't happy. (To be fair, I was going through a number of personal problems myself, so it's entirely possible I was partially or even totally at fault. It was twenty years ago. I don't really know.) The last time I saw her was at my good friends' Chris and Kate's wedding a dozen or so years ago. I think we said all of a handful of words to each other. But Julie left three contributions in my life before we parted ways, and I want to talk about the first of them today. It's a band called The Samples.

The Samples are from Boulder, CO, and they've often been described as "the best band you've never heard of," but I like to think of them as the Midwestern band that just never moved much past the Midwest. Every region's got them - bands that are fantastic, but just never seem to gain a foothold in areas outside of their neck of the woods. West coast bands. East coast bands. Midwest bands. The Samples really are a sort of grass-roots band, not signing to a major label until they were on their fifth album (and they were summarily dropped from said label after that album). They've been compared to people like The Police, Blues Traveler and Phish, mostly because The Samples incorporate world beat and reggae influences into their folky guitar-pop.

In 1993, I was in the middle of listening to just about anything I could get my hands on, trying to find new things that I'd never heard of that I liked. It meant everything was fair game, and nothing should be discounted. Julie and I had been dating a few weeks when she handed me a CD and told me it was her favorite album. That album was "No Room." I asked her what she knew about the band, which wasn't a whole lot. They were from Colorado, she thought, and she loved the album. They were a pretty big eco-friendly band, and they toured endlessly. She wanted me to listen to it and see what I thought, so I did. It was definitely a different sound than much of what I'd heard before. I could see why people were making Police comparisons - the drumming was more jazz influenced, and the bass hopped along to beats that were akin to (but not derivative of) Sting's work in The Police. The lead singer was a bit more high pitched and nasally than I cared for, but there were a number of great standout songs on the album. I copied the whole thing to a tape then gave Julie back her CD. She was glad I liked it, although I think I tried to keep my criticisms to myself about the weaker songs on the CD, of which there were a few.

My favorite song on the album (and hers) was a song called "Nothing Lasts For Long," which I suppose should've been foreshadowing about her and I, but when you're young and in love, you don't tend to see that kind of writing on the wall. It's not a depressing song, more of a pensive one, asking about the value of holding onto things when there are no guarantees in life.

Of course, that wasn't the only great song on the CD. There were several others, like the much more energetic "When It's Raining," or "Taking Us Home," which always makes me think of a car ride home on a summer afternoon. The most rockish songs on the album are the kiss-off "Won't Be Back Again" or the borderline temper tantrum of "Seany Boy (Drop Out)."

The Samples have gone through some hard times as a band, with singer/guitarist Sean Kelly as the only member of the band who's been in every incarnation, losing members to solo projects, creative differences or even heroin addiction. There were a number of reports of bad financial troubles hitting Sean Kelly, who at one point was offering to play basically anywhere, as long as people were paying. For a long while, it looked like 2005's "Rehearsing For Life" was going to be the band's last album, which would've been a shame, because it wasn't a particularly strong album, certainly not compared to "No Room," the great follow ups "The Last Drag" and "Autopilot" or even their big label album "Outpost."  In fact, when people sort of want a "best of," I generally recommend they pick up "Transmissions From The Sea of Tranquility," which is mostly a live concert recording. The Samples have always been a jam band, and so the live versions of songs often have more room to breathe, and let the musicians develop the songs a bit more. (There is an official best-of, but it only goes up to 1994, and neglects a lot of the great songs they did later.) Thankfully, this story does have a happy ending. When I was researching this article (getting dates right and finding links for the albums on iTunes), I found out that The Samples had put out a brand new album on New Year's Day this year called "America." It's too early for me to pass a verdict on it (I've literally only listened to the first three songs as I write this), but it's good to see the band's still going. Maybe someday they'll be back to their hayday of the early 90s. (One of their opening bands from that time period? The Dave Matthews Band.) Until then, you should pick up some of their stuff. Start with either "No Room" or "Transmissions From The Sea of Tranquility," although really, you'll find stuff to love on pretty much any of their albums.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

The Negotiator - 1998

To this day, I'm always shocked more people haven't seen "The Negotiator." It stars two incredibly well known actors (Samuel L. Jackson and Kevin Spacey), it's well-written, the critics liked it... and yet it didn't make it's money back in theaters here. (The film had a budget of $50 mil, and made about $44.5 mil in US theaters.)

Maybe the film was too smart for people. Maybe it wasn't marketed well. Maybe people were hoping for more action and less tension. Or maybe people are just idiots. I dunno. For whatever reason, "The Negotiator" has flown under the radar for a good long while, and like John Travolta told Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, "That's a damn shame."

This is the kind of movie that Hollywood used to make a lot more of - pictures where most of the fireworks come from the actors and the dialogue. And it's not like either of them were unknowns at the time. Spacey had had the one-two punch of "The Usual Suspects" and "Se7en" only two years earlier, and also in 1996 Samuel L. Jackson had made a big splash with "A Time To Kill." This was two titans of actors coming together to butt heads, and audiences just didn't show.

Jackson plays Danny Roman, a hostage negotiator who is accused of embezzling money from police pension funds as well as killing his partner. When everything starts going sideways and the walls start closing in, he finds himself on the other side of the fence - taking hostages. He requests a specific hostage negotiator, Chris Sabian (Spacey), to come in and hear his demands. Sabian doesn't know Roman at all, and so he finds himself wondering why he was asked for specifically.

We've seen hostage situations more times than we can count on film, and so we as an audience have an expectation of how things are going to play out, but we are constantly reminded that Roman has been dealing with hostage situations for a living for some time, and he too knows the rules of the game. Very early on, the relationship is pretty clearly established - Sabian wants to treat Roman like any other hostage taker, except he knows that he can't, which means so many of the habits and skills he's developed over the years just don't apply. And because they each know how hostage situations work, everything's fair game.

"The Negotiator" thrives on the basis of letting two heavyweights just go in swinging at one another. Originally when the movie was being pitched, it was Sylvester Stallone and Kevin Spacey, with Spacey in the hostage taker role. Stallone turned it down, and when he did, Spacey decided he was still interested in it, but wanted the part of Sabian, and Jackson was offered what is, ostensibly, the lead in the movie, which is a smart bit of insight on Spacey's part. The two actors work very well together, and it's my hope we'll see them in another tightly-wound picture like this again.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Brewster's Millions - 1985

"You don't have to be crazy to blow 30 million dollars in 30 days. But it helps."

At a time when over 4 million Americans (yours truly included) are considered "long-term unemployed" for reasons outside of their control (i.e. there aren't jobs out there...), it's nice to have a film like "Brewster's Millions" to look at and laugh yourself silly, where you see how crazy money can make a person.

The film, drawn from the 1902 novel (like nine other adaptations...), tells the story of a man who has inherited a sum of money from a deceased relative, with some interesting conditions. In the film, Monty Brewster (played by the incomparable Richard Pryor) has been left a challenge by his great uncle. He inherit one million dollars, right now, no questions asked. Or, he can inherit thirty million dollars, that he needs to completely get rid of, in thirty days, without acquiring anything, and if he succeeds, he'll inherit three hundred million dollars. Let me repeat that, he can't own anything at the end of those thirty days. Oh sure, there are allowances for him to gamble some away, for him to give some to charity, but he can't have any assets, and he can't destroy anything of value.

And he can't tell anyone what he's doing. Not his accountant. Not his best friend.


Now keep in mind, Monty Brewster is as broke as they come when the story starts. He's a down on his luck baseball player, and he's never earned more than $11,000 in a year. The idea of spending thirty million dollars in thirty days seems like it's insane, but, as Brewster says, it also sounds like "a hell of a lot of fun."

The film comes from Walter Hill, who's biggest claims to fame are directing the two "48 Hours" movies with Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte. For those movies, and for this, Hill's greatest strength is mostly in knowing how to let the camera just stay out of the way while the stars are acting, in a very natural fashion. This isn't to say he's a bad director - just that he isn't flashy, and he lets the films sort of grow organically.

Pryor and John Candy (who plays Brewster's best friend, and catcher, Spike) really are the core of this film. Part of the fun is in watching Pryor just go at it a mile a minute and seeing John Candy whirling to try and keep up. Critics of the time criticized the film for not being fast-paced enough to be a screwball comedy, but I've always disagreed. This is a film about the buildup. Several of the scenes play out like mini-movies, with motifs building and building and building until there's a boil over and everything comes crashing in. Pryor's always been great at this kind of thing, and "Brewster's Millions" is no exception.

You might think it would be particularly easy to spend thirty million dollars, but it all comes back to that one key catch - he can't own anything. If he does, if he has any assets, he gets absolutely nothing. And several times when he thinks he's doing well, money keeps on boomeranging back to him. It's as though when he wanted money in his life, he couldn't get any, and now when he wants to get rid of it, he can't do that either. And that's the fun of it. The only thing I can think of that would've really nailed it home was if there was a little number that would've popped up in the bottom corner whenever money went in or out in large chunks, but that's just me thinking of how I might approach it.

There are lots of side things I could talk about in this movie that I've always found great - the weird logic it takes to spend money without getting anything for it, how casually some of the weirdness of baseball folds into this film (yep, that's Jerry Orbach of "Law and Order" fame as Brewster's baseball team's coach!), the craziness of running for office, the difficulty in staying on a path without telling anyone why - but really, when you get right down to it, the movie's just funny as hell, and if you haven't seen it, you can pick up the DVD for $5 off Amazon. And that's a steal no matter how you look at it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Taking Back Sunday - Tell All Your Friends - 2002

Considering they just put out a new album today, today seems like a great time to talk about Taking Back Sunday. Guess how I first heard about them? Yep, you guessed it - CMJ New Music Monthly. The song "Cute Without The 'E' (Cut From The Team)" was on one of their monthly CDs, and I enjoyed the hell out of the song. So I went out and picked up the album, "Tell All Your Friends," which was the band's first album. And I think I spent much of 2003 telling people about how awesome it is.

Taking Back Sunday are a band from Long Island, New York that were formed by a guy (Eddie Reyes) who'd been in a number of other bands, none of which had ever taken off much. (Before the band had recorded anything, one of the members split off and went to form a new band, who also turned out okay - they're called Brand New.) After the band recorded their first EP, they moved their bassist, Adam Lazzara, to be their vocalist. And that was when the band started to really gel.

"Tell All Your Friends" came out on Victory Records in 2002, and it was a much bigger success than the label expected. (The album went gold in 2005.) It's a heady blend of post-hardcore and emo-rock, building on some of the foundations that bands like Sunny Day Real Estate and Mineral were putting together. In fact, I remember telling people that TAYF was a lot like Jimmy Eat World with a bit more anger and a little less pop.

The band's success caused more than a little bit of chaos in the band. In 2003, two members of the band, John Nolan and Shaun Cooper, left to form Straylight Run, although they rejoined the band in 2010, and it really was for the best. While Taking Back Sunday had some great songs without Nolan/Cooper, their strongest work truly has been together.

"Tell All Your Friends" is one of those albums where there's no shortage of great songs. There were four singles from it - "Cute Without The 'E' (Cut From The Team)," "Great Romances Of The Twentieth Century," "You're So Last Summer" and "Timberwolves At New Jersey" - but even the songs that weren't singles were great as well. It's a tight album, too, with 10 songs, clocking in under 35 minutes, no song taking longer than it needs to. It's almost like they wanted to keep everything lean and punchy. A couple of the songs get a little rough (both Lazzara and Nolan have cited the last track on the album, "Head Club," as their least favorite song) but on the whole, it's a 35 minutes you will find yourself revisiting a number of times.

There are a lot of great songs I could pick off the album to share, but I wanted to give you just one, and it's been one of my favorite songs for a long time. It's called "You're So Last Summer," and it has perhaps the best lyric to describe painful, unrequited love that I've ever heard - "the truth is you could slit my throat / And with my one last gasping breath / I'd apologize for bleeding on your shirt"

Also, for those of you who don't follow me on Twitter, I am now keeping a Spotify playlist of songs I write about, and if you want to listen to full versions of songs from each album I've written about (for free, no less), you can just load this list up. If you do, go ahead and follow it, as I'll keep updating it every time I write about music. And if you want to support the bands, obviously, there's generally a link to the iTunes version of each album I write about included in the article.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Three Days Of The Condor - 1975

Here's one that predates even me, old fart that I am. "Three Days Of The Condor" is a 1975 film from Sydney Pollack starring Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Cliff Robertson and Max Von Sydow. It's in that genre I find hard to get enough of - paranoid spy thrillers.

I've learned over the years that I like Robert Redford in about anything, and when I found out he was in a spy film from just before I was born, well, needless to say I was intrigued. Add in the fact that it was a Sydney Pollack film (he's best known for directing "Tootsie" but he was a fantastic director and a great actor to boot) and you had my attention.

Redford plays Joe Turner, a CIA researcher out of New York, code named Condor. He's, well, he's a reader. It's his job to read magazines, novels, newspapers, etc., and to be on the lookout for clandestine messages hidden within. For example, he's reporting to the CIA about a novel he's reading, that isn't very good, but has been translated into a surprising number of languages, which is, in itself, somewhat unusual. He's not a field agent. He makes this very clear a number of times in the film. But he is very smart.

One day, he goes out to lunch and comes back to find his entire office murdered, and himself on the run. And he suspects the CIA may be trying to set him up. So he enlists the help of a woman entirely at random.

Part of what's so great about this film is the feeling that no one, and I do mean no one, is entirely trustworthy. The film wasn't long after Watergate, and while they were filming it, another bunch of scandals had come to light, pointing the finger clearly at the CIA. Pollack said a number of times that it just happened to be an interesting coincidence, as they were basically in post production when the scandal broke, and they simply got lucky.

The cast is excellent and Pollack gets mileage out of them. Redford is rarely less than great, and he's got a real sense of tension in this movie. I'd seen Dunaway in "Network" but it had been a while, and I was glad to see that "Network" wasn't a one-off and she portrayed a genuine sense of terror. And if you want a villain, well, Max Von Sydow practically wrote the book on that. He was Blofeld and Ming the Merciless. I mean, c'mon.

Redford would revisit the spy role a number of other times in his career, and I'm sure we'll get to some of those films at some point in the blog, but for now, I leave you with the trailer for "Three Days Of The Condor."

(There was a book first? Hmmm....)

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Love Is Hell - Ryan Adams - 2004

Ryan Adams and I haven't always seen eye to eye, which I think is a fair thing for almost anyone to say of his music, because the guy tends to be all over the map. Sometimes he's alternative country, sometimes he's indie garage rock, sometimes, like on "Love Is Hell," the album I'm talking about today, he's doing a fine impression of the sort of gloom rock albums that England was putting out in the 80's and 90's.

Adams started with the band Whiskeytown, and after that band had run its course, he started making independent albums. Everyone has their own favorite, with a lot of people saying "Gold" if for no other reason than it has the song "New York, New York" on it, which became very popular post 9/11. His more recent stuff has drifted back towards the alt-country stuff he'd been doing before, although he still gets the rock out now and again. He's supposedly working on a new album now, and it's anyone's guess what mode that'll find him in. He's gone through phases of ridiculous prolifically charged songwriting tears, but he's slowed down in recent years. (Maybe he could start releasing some of that back catalog, like the unreleased "The Suicide Handbook.")

But at the beginning of the last decade, he was interested in capturing the spirit of the songs of the rain. There were elements of country, certainly, but it wasn't the biggest influence. The sounds were big, reverb-y and filled with a sorrowful whisper, layers with acoustic guitars and the occasional soft spoken electric. It felt somewhere between a Tom Petty record and The Jesus And Mary Chain's "Darklands" album. The record label apparently didn't even want to release it, and in a lot of cases, you'll still it listed as two EPs.

"English Girls Approximately" is certainly one of the songs I've listened to the most, because it's bluesy without being too regretful. It has a certain world-weary tone to it, almost resigned to his fate. "Said you didn't love me, it was right on time, I was just about to tell you that I care alright / Said you didn't love me, didn't want a thing, English girls can be so mean..." That is a man who's seen some rough times in his life. And yet, the guitar carries on, and you get the feeling that this guy is still somewhat optimistic in the face of all of this. It's almost as if he's shaking his head and has a smirked, can-you-believe-this-shit smile on his face.

Of course, the song from this album that put him on the radar of so many people was his cover of Oasis' "Wonderwall." Whatever you might think of that original, there's no denying that Adams' cover is brilliant and in a completely different track. Even Noel Gallagher, the song's original writer, has said that he loves Ryan Adams' version of the song. I couldn't get an embedded studio version on Youtube, so the live version above will give you an idea of what to expect from it.

"Shadowlands" has always been my favorite track from the album, though, and one of my utter favorite songs Adams has ever recorded. It opens with a plaintive piano and Adams' voice somewhat muted and damped, as if he's singing from beneath a shroud. And eventually you start to hear little flits of other sound. And then the muting fades and Adams' voice becomes warmer, softer. And then the strings come in. And then the tracer lines of an electric guitar waking up from a slumber. Then the drums kick in, and the song blossoms into itself, as a lead electric guitar stumbles up into the foreground, maybe a little hungover, but happy to see the dawn of the new morning, stretching and waking to the coming day.