Saturday, March 29, 2014

Toy Soldiers - 1991

There are a number of movies in this blog that I talk about that aren't necessarily great films, but they're fun movies. "Toy Soldiers" is one of those movies.

It stars a bunch of people you've seen in lots of things - Sean Astin, Wil Wheaton, Denholm Elliot, Keith Coogan, Louis Gossett Jr., Mason Adams... hell, it's got R. Lee Ermey in it! (You'll remember him as the insane drill instructor from "Full Metal Jacket." Everyone does.)

The premise of the film is that terrorists take over a private boarding school full of the worst of the worst rejects, the people who've been kicked out of lots of other boarding schools.

They decide they're going to fight back.

Now, keep in mind, despite the semi-campy concept, this is a thriller. There are parts of it that can be lighthearted, but this is a film that isn't afraid to show people getting killed, and isn't afraid to shirk away from the consequences of people's actions. It's shot in that sort of minimalistic style of the late 1980s, which makes it funny that it came out in 1991. It's nothing to write home about visually. In fact, none of the pieces by themselves are really all that remarkable. The dialogue veers from good to cornball and back again on a dime. The actors are trying to make the hodgepodge of Ferris Bueller's Day Off meets Red Dawn work for them, and are mostly succeeding. The whole thing comes together into something that's better than it's parts.

(And it's another film that shows that Wil Wheaton really should be getting more acting roles.)

It seems like on paper that it shouldn't work, and yet, I watched this movie a number of times on HBO during the early 1990s. It would come on some Saturday afternoon and I'd sit and watch it all over again. Of course, no one had any idea how to market it, and it didn't get a big audience, but it's still worth a Saturday afternoon of yours, too.

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Cure - Disintegration - 1989

When I was in high school, I remember as a freshman I started getting into alternative music, and one of the bands I found early on was The Cure, mostly because of the song "Just Like Heaven" from "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me." But around that time, the album "Wish" was coming out. Now a lot of people wouldn't get on board with "Wish" until "Friday I'm In Love" was a single, but I was hooked from the moment I heard the buzzing, twinkly guitars of "High," the first single. And I was in gym class talking about it with a guy named Dustin Sudduth, who told me that "Wish" was a great album, but it didn't compare to their last album, "Disintegration." I hadn't heard "Disintegration," so I picked up a copy. And to this day, I'm still not sure which is better. But today I want to talk about "Disintegration" because a) it was The Cure's best selling album, and b) it had the single that almost everyone's heard, "Lovesong."

The Cure have been around a long time, with 13 studio albums under their belts. They've also had something of a revolving door membership, with singer/guitarist/songwriter Robert Smith the only permanent fixture, although a number of band members have left and come back. When "Disintegration" was released in 1989, their label thought it was probably career suicide. What they'd hoped for was something poppier, to build off of the fans that "Just Like Heaven" had drawn in. Instead, what they got was one of the most hallucinogenic albums ever to be unleashed on the mainstream.

Full of heavy synths, dreamlike guitars, wall-of-sound effects and a gloomy yet fascinating song, it was almost as if Smith decided to take all of the goth things about the band and ratchet them up to the point where they didn't make sense any more. From the opening lush daybreak of "Plainsong" to the closing slow walk goodbye of "Untitled," everything about "Disintegration" is in the state of falling apart, just like the name. But amidst all of this, there's some amazing pop songs dancing among the brush - "Lovesong," obviously, but also the almost unbearably wounded heartbreak of "Pictures of You" or the spidery strings of "Lullabye" or the hypnotic sheen of "Fascination Street."

You could argue what the best Cure album is, but in the end, that's a personal question. For me, "Wish" is still going to be my favorite from them, but when I lived in Nebraska, at the first rain of autumn, I would always put on "Disintegration" and sit and watch the rain come down.

It's just that sort of record.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Mallrats - 1995

I've always thought that Mallrats, Kevin Smith's second film, gets an unfair bad rep. So here's the story - Kevin Smith makes Clerks. Clerks turns out to be wild runaway hit, especially considering the less-than-nothing budget it was made on. Universal offers Smith a bunch of money for his next project. Smith decides he wants to make, what is in essence, Clerks meets a Jonathan Silverman movie, and makes Mallrats. (I think they were calling it "a Porky's for the 90s.") The studio doesn't have any idea what to do with Mallrats once they get it. It's not as edgy as Clerks, nor anywhere near as indie. They float it to test audiences, and audiences aren't quite sure what to make of it either. People who don't know Smith at all don't like it because it's either too filthy or too pop culture. People who do know Smith don't like it because it isn't more of Clerks, and feels too, well, 1980s. On the whole audiences just can't seem to connect with the film. It opens. It doesn't do well. Smith goes back to Miramax, and makes Chasing Amy, which is closer to his Clerks roots and does better. (Also, is his best film end-to-end.) And Mallrats gets, well, not quite disowned, but let's just say a lot of people prefer to overlook it.

Those folks are wrong.

See, Mallrats very much is a Porky's for the 90s (although it's a little light on the nudity for that). It could've starred Jonathan Silverman (best known for Weekend At Bernie's) if he'd been age appropriate. It is a screwball suburban comedy with a rebellious streak a mile wide. It's also a lot better than people give it credit for. It's a film about that awkward transition between high school and post-high school, when people are struggling to figure themselves out, trying to figure out what they want to do and how they want to do. And it's a film that is 100% completely and totally about malls.

Mallrats is the story of two different young men, Brodie and T.S., attempting to get their relationships back on track after tumultuous snafus in the opening, and attempting to figure out what's wrong with themselves and where they were. It's got appearances from Jay & Silent Bob, features a topless psychic, has Michael Rooker playing the heavy (because Michael Rooker defaults to playing a heavy - I think he's contractually obligated to be a heavy in 80% of his movies), and features Stan Lee offering life advice.

As long as you know what you're getting into, Mallrats is a great summer afternoon film...

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Too Much Joy - Mutiny - 1992

"Mutiny" should've been Too Much Joy's big break. The band had been building a solid fanbase for a while, and the song "Crush Story" from "Cereal Killers" had been getting college radio play. So what happened? A couple of things. First and foremost, Giant Records didn't really know what to do with the band. They weren't quite punk, weren't quite pop, weren't quite rock, and Giant didn't really have any idea where to put the band. Beyond that, "Mutiny" represented a step forward for the band, but one that tended to put a few people on edge, because the album had a certain more mature flair to it, with lyrics that were introspective and layered, so some of the initial fanbase felt a bit edged out. (Keep in mind, Too Much Joy's first album was called "Green Eggs and Crack.")

Too Much Joy didn't do anything the way bands are supposed to. The video for the single from "Mutiny," the insanely catchy "Donna Everywhere," had a video directed by Penn of Penn & Teller, and showed how the band was spending the budget of their video in a mall, getting instruments, food, pets, etc. They had KRS-One rapping on a song on "Cereal Killers." They covered LL Cool J's "That's A Lie" on "Son Of Sam I Am." They played 2 Live Crew songs in Florida, specifically to get arrested on that state's obscenity laws. They were sued by Bozo the Clown for an unauthorized sample. They didn't even retire, just sort of go on a hiatus they come on and off from. I saw them live on tour for "...finally" and got to interview Tim Quirk for the Daily Nebraskan. I even got the band to sign my CD booklet for "...finally," to my enjoyment.

They were always a catchy band, full of enthusiasm. Hell, they even have their own theme song, called, appropriately "Theme Song," from "Cereal Killers," that contains the closing refrain of the majority of their shows "To create, you must destroy, smash a glass and cry, Too Much Joy!" But the band ran its course, and around 2001, they semi-packed it in. They haven't put out anything new since, and they've only played a couple of live gigs here and there. Tim (the vocalist) and Jay (the guitarist) put together a side project called Wonderlick that's put out a few good albums.

"Mutiny" really is the crown jewel of a great collection of albums, though, full of killer songs, from the song "Donna Everywhere" (written about Tim's meeting of his wife), to the castrato of "Just Like A Man," to the shrieks of "What It Is," to the drowning dreams of "Starry Eyes," to the murderous lyrics of "Sort Of Haunted House," to the quiet, simple melody of "Unbeautiful."

I love this album, nay this band, and you should too.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Sugar - Copper Blue - 1992

I'd dabbled a bit with Hüsker Dü in 1991, but I'd found that a lot of their songs were a little too abrasive for me, so Sugar wasn't really on my radar when their first album came out, but I was hanging out at the Antequarium in downtown Omaha one Saturday and "A Good Idea" was playing in the record shop downstairs. I asked the guy behind the counter and he told me it was a band called Sugar, from their first album, "Copper Blue," which had just come out. No mention of Hüsker Dü, and I didn't make the connection of the vocals. Then the song appeared on stalwart 120 Minutes, and the second time around was enough to convince me I was interested. We were at Westroads Mall on Monday after school so I swung into a music store and picked up a copy of the album, and for the next few months, I think I played that CD a lot more than I should've.

Sugar was formed by singer/guitarist Bob Mould after Hüsker Dü broke up. And the story of Hüsker Dü's collapse is too complicated for me to get into here, so you can go look that up on your own. After Hüsker Dü, Bob decided he wanted another band, so he got a new bassist and a new drummer and formed Sugar. Sugar didn't veer too far from Hüsker Dü, but it polished some of the harsher edges off and tried to glaze a layer of pop sheen over them. Critics of the time called it "grunge-pop," "noise-pop," and, most stickingly, "power pop." It's easy to see why the power pop label stuck - the album is full of big, buzzy guitars, but the songs are catchy, accessible and stick in the brain, with great hooks. It was a great change of pace in a time when it felt like everyone was trying to be a Seattle band - Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice In Chains were all big draws, and it seemed like lots of bands wanted to jump in on that bandwagon, but Sugar were going the other direction. Instead of gloom and doom, Sugar wanted as much sunlight as they could get. Even the slightly depressing songs were uptempo.

Given the sort of tumultuous nature of Bob Mould, it wasn't really any surprise that Sugar only made it to two albums (the second being the less-great-but-still-great "File Under: Easy Listening"), although this was mostly due to the bassist, David Barbe, wanting to spend more time with his family. Since that time, Bob Mould's mostly been going it alone, although in 2012 he did a tour replaying "Copper Blue" in its entirety for it's 20th anniversary. I'm still sad I missed that. I leave you with the crown jewel of the album, "If I Can't Change Your Mind."

Monday, March 24, 2014

F/X - 1986, F/X2 - 1991

F/X is one of those films that isn't a masterpiece, but was a whole hell of a lot of fun, and seems to have gotten lost in the annuls of time for no good reason. I suspect it's just because it was a film from the 1980s, and it seems like if it wasn't a megalithic hit in the 80s, it's often forgotten, which is a shame. I remember catching this film on cable at some point when I was in high school, showing back-to-back with the sequel, F/X2, and thinking that this was a fun film to catch.

Rollie Tyler is a special effects man who's cut his teeth on films such as "I Dismember Mama," and he's hired on by the Department of Justice to help fake a murder for someone about to go into the witness protection program. And that's about the end of what I want to tell you about the plot.

It's fun to see a movie about movie making that isn't, well, Robert Altman's "The Player." F/X takes the special effects business as a springboard to leap into a fairly fun and sophisticated thriller, despite the quasi-low budget feel the whole film has. It's got a cast of people you've mostly never heard of (except Brian Dennehy! Who's awesome! Because he's Brian Dennehy!), you don't know the director, you don't know the writers, but it's still a fun little Saturday afternoon film, assuming you can get past the 1980s made-on-the-cheap feel. The film is even subtitled "Murder By Illusion!" And the second one was subtitled "The Deadly Art Of Illusion." So here you go - your next Saturday afternoon double header. F/X and F/X2. (There was also apparently a TV series for a couple of seasons, but I never saw that, so I can't speak to its quality.)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Fightstar - One Day Son, This Will All Be Yours - 2007

The story of Fightstar is an amusing one. See, Fightstar's front man, Charlie Simpson, was best known in England for being a member of a boy band called Busted. After two albums, Simpson was feeling musically unsatisfied, and started playing with guitarist Alex Westaway and drummer Omar Abidi at a party. A few days later, they started practicing together at Simpson's house, and Fightstar was born. In fact, rumor has it that Fightstar was what caused Simpson to part ways with Busted in the first place. (Fun fact: Busted is best known over here because two of their songs were covered by the Jonas Brothers, who had a big hit here with one of them.)

Fightstar's been good for Simpson. They've put out three albums thusfar, and each of them have been good-to-great. They went on hiatus while Simpson put together his second solo album, but they should be back in the studio shortly. They're post-hardcore, which means not quite metal, not quite punk, not quite emo. They have nice elaborate guitar structures, soaring melodies, introspective lyrics and good interplay between the instruments.

I think I chose to write about "One Day Son, This Will All Be Yours," the band's second album, for two reasons. First, you have to love that title. Second, my favorite song from the band, "I Am The Message," is on this album. The funny thing about Fightstar is that I find about 3-5 songs per album that I really love, 3-4 songs that I like but don't find myself seeking out, and 1-2 songs that generally just kind of bore me (or still contain Cookie Monster Vocals, one of the musical tics that sends me up the backside of the wall).

"I Am The Message"moves along at a good clip, with hopping guitar lines and a steady quickstep bass line that dances with some fancy drumming. It's typical of the sort of tones and styles you'll find on "One Day Son." It's not the only great song, by any means. I also put "Floods," "We Apologize For Nothing" and the melancholy "Unfamiliar Ceilings" into the playlist of songs I think people would like.