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Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 26 July 2018 08:29 (A review of Believe)

Cher’s return to dance music, a decision she expressed indifference towards in the run-up to the album’s release, is something of a generic affair on Believe. She sings any ol’ piece of crap thrown before her like her life depends on it, which means she’s a good diva but it also leads to a sense of boredom. She only puts in some personality into her vocals on a handful of songs, “Strong Enough,” “All or Nothing,” and the title song, and the rest get the bare minimum effort. It doesn’t help that a lot of this material is nondescript, like “Taxi Taxi,” a song that sounds like every cliché late-80s club hit grinding together, or “Dov’e L’amore,” a snoozy near-ballad. Hell, “All or Nothing” borrows an unmistakable Donna Summer groove for a bit, and much of Believe is borrowed instead of inspired. Her Royal Cher-ness ends this album with a remix of a near-decade old pop/rock tune, but she at least gave us gays one hell of anthem nearly in spite of herself.  


DOWNLOAD: “Believe” 

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Gold: Greatest Hits

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 26 July 2018 04:08 (A review of Gold: Greatest Hits)

ABBA’s never shied away from compilation albums, and if the two-disc The Definitive Collection is too expensive or too overwhelming a selection then Gold: Greatest Hits is the single-disc collection to own. At nineteen songs, this is the best of the best of the best of ABBA’s impressive run of singles.


Their debut album’s, Ring Ring, innocence and camp-adjacent material is ignored in favor of their gargantuan hits like “Fernando” and “Mamma Mia.” Chronological order is jettisoned in favor of a sequence that plays like a glorious concert setlist. We open with “Dancing Queen,” close with “Waterloo,” and find time to revisit all the beloved staples in-between (“Take a Chance on Me,” “Lay All Your Love on Me”).


Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad provide the ice and fire vocals, and frequently harmonize into something absolutely transcendent. While Benny Anderson and Björn Ulvaeus do the heavy-lifting of writing the material and producing it into a smooth finish. What emerges is how masterful their vision of pop music was and remains.


ABBA’s legacy languished post-The Visitors, their final studio recording, and Gold launched them back into pop cultural prominence and placement within the canon. Shimmery and finely crafted, Gold: Greatest Hits is the purest distillation of the agonies and ecstasies of these Swedish pop masterminds. They earn the golden crown emblazoned on the cover.


DOWNLOAD: “Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight),” “Dancing Queen,” “The Winner Takes It All”

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The Singles: The First Ten Years

Posted : 4 months, 2 weeks ago on 24 July 2018 08:01 (A review of The Singles: The First Ten Years)

The best vinyl-era greatest hits release of the Scandinavian quartet is twenty-three songs of pop excellence. Released in November 1982, ABBA would disband in December but what a swan song to go out on! The Singles: The First Ten Years represents the group's various transitions: from vivacious kitsch (“Ring, Ring,” “So Long”) to elegant pop (“Dancing Queen,” “SOS”), from sophisticated artistes (“The Winner Takes It All,” “Voulez-Vous”) to their experimental final singles (“Under Attack,” “The Day Before You Came”). There’s a few glaring omissions, the sensual come on of “Lay All Your Love on Me” and the self-mythology of “Thank You for the Music” are both deeply missed, but The Singles is still pound for pound one of the towering testaments to the power of the pop single. An absolutely essential addition to your vinyl collection – seek this out.


DOWNLOAD: “Waterloo,” “Under Attack,” “The Day Before You Came”

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Tropic Thunder

Posted : 5 months ago on 11 July 2018 08:49 (A review of Tropic Thunder)

You ever looked at Heart of Darkness, not the novel but the documentary about making Apocalypse Now, and think but what if it were a comedy? If the answer is no, then you’re clearly most people and not Ben Stiller. Props to Ben Stiller for deciding to take the piss out of the entire construct of prestige projects, auteurs, and ego-centric actors with Tropic Thunder.


It’s an entertaining 107 minutes, one that hurls a string of jokes at you, most of which land, and then rolls off into the credits happy to have entertained. It has no grander ambitions and thank god for that. It’s fun to watch Ben Stiller play a movie star trying to go serious, and perhaps a bit uncomfortably reflective at points given how he’s forsaken these types of films in favor of smaller scale character dramas lately. Same goes for Jack Black playing a comic actor big on fart humor not only trying to go serious but dealing with a massive heroin addiction that leads to some…unique verbal diatribes.


It’s at its zenith when it sits back and lets Robert Downey Jr. rip into overly Method-y actor types, like the great Daniel Day-Lewis, who torture and contort themselves for their art and begin to believe the fantasy is real. His character is a tightrope here, at once a joke about overly serious/earnest artistic types and essentially appearing in blackface. That last bit is baked into the film’s humor and treated with appropriate derision and lampoonery, mainly by a rapper-turned-actor dubbed Alpa Cino (Brandon T. Jackson). 2008 was a glorious return to form for Downey Jr. as an actor, between this and Iron Man, and a reminder of what a great comedic actor he can be when allowed to rapid-fire dialogue and find the truth in the absurdity. I’m sure he had plenty of ammo after working with Val Kilmer in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.


Still, comedy is hard to maintain for a prolonged period of time, and Tropic Thunder’s eventual concession to make goods, happy endings, and brotherly bonds deflates some of its sharper critiques. This is a movie that opens with Stiller’s character being rightly chastised and spoofed for a poorly made film about a disabled character in a clear bid for artistic credibility and awards, then ends with his receiving those exact things. Tropic Thunder wants to have its cake and eat it too, as if it were afraid to maintain its savage tone for too long.


Or the egos got brittle and in the way. They needed some soothing after the lashing they’d been receiving. It’s not earned and ends the film on a curious note after what was a lively, raucous glimpse at actorly self-absorption and a nearly unrecognizable Tom Cruise going beyond “ham” and into something far bigger, broader, and stranger. It can’t dilute the comedic might of what came before, but it’s an unsatisfying climax.

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Little Women

Posted : 5 months ago on 11 July 2018 08:49 (A review of Little Women)

Confession: I have never read Little Women. Despite this, the story is one that is so familiar and become such a collected part of the fabric of Americana that I know the story’s general beats, character types, and basic plot. After all, there’s been three major film adaptations, several done on television, and it made a memorable appearance as a topic of discussion in an episode of Friends.


I generally like the warmth, love, and proto-feminist aura that the story provides. Here’s a safe haven for young girls where their intellectual curiosity is not only accounted for but strongly encourage. One where girls band together to make it through life’s various difficulties and grow into the best versions of themselves. Its enduring popularity makes perfect sense to me.


So, here’s 1994’s beloved adaptation with a stellar cast, more emphasis placed on the feminist undertones, and a general vibe of self-esteem, love, support, and nurturing. The warmth found in this movie is intoxicating. It’s a vision of American possibility and hopeful optimism that I want to believe in. It’s also just one hell of a movie.


Walking into this one would expect a soft-edged children’s film made from Louisa May Alcott’s indelible novel of the transition from girlhood to womanhood. Director Gillian Armstrong is instead more preoccupied with crafting the story in as natural a manner as possible. She succeeds from the first frame to the last. When we first visit the March family, huddled together around a modest Christmas Eve celebration during the Civil War, they feel like a real familial unit complete with sibling’s alternating between squabbling and supporting each other and a matron trying to keep it all afloat.


There’s a pleasing, nurturing vibe to this home, and that nostalgic aura projects throughout the rest of the film. Armstrong has managed to make a well-known, well-worn story feel vibrantly alive first through setting an appropriate tone for the material, then by assembling a strong group of actresses for the various parts. It starts with Susan Sarandon as Marmee, who strikes that delicate balance between authority figure and nurturer. It extends to relatively few male figures that appear throughout, such as Christian Bale and Eric Stoltz as the neighbor boy and his tutor, and Gabriel Bryne as a German professor.  


Yet the real success of the film is on the ensemble of actresses in the parts of the sisters. Kirsten Dunst gives another preternaturally strong and lived-in performance as the young Amy, while Samantha Mathis’ older Amy feels like the logical outgrowth of Dunst’s, Claire Danes plays the doomed Beth with underlining serenity that makes her exit from the narrative all the tougher to watch. While Trini Alvarado’s Meg is a glimpse of a young actress giving the type of performance that should’ve led to bigger, better roles. It somehow didn’t, but Alvarado’s work matches that of Winona Ryder’s Jo, and that’s no small feat.


Ryder did several most corset/costume dramas during her 90s heyday than you probably remember, and her Jo is one of the strongest performances from that string of films. She’s headstrong, passionate, and smart. She wants to be more than whatever preconceived notions of femininity the era offers her, and she’s forcible enough to walk that path happily. After the more duplicitous and unnervingly still work in The Age of Innocence, Ryder went for the complete opposite here in a dynamic display of her range. She deserved that Best Actress nomination.


If only Little Women hadn’t forced her into a “happy ending” that feels like a concession to social mores of the time. Jo’s engagement to the German professor feels like an after-thought, as I’m sure it probably does in the book, when it’s clear that she would’ve been perfectly happy to go about her life single, childless, and writing up a storm. At least Ryder and Byrne make several small moments leading up the climatic ending feel like a connection of the mind and hearts, as if their relationship will be built upon something more than station, social maneuvering, or finances.


It’s this home stretch of Little Women that gets a bit wonky as Armstrong’s firm grip on the material slackens ever so slightly in spots. It’s easier to manage four girls when they’re all under one roof, but exponentially harder once they start marrying and moving off into their new lives. Still, Armstrong’s film remains remarkably solid, engaging, and hypnotically innocent until the very end. If nothing else, it also gave a generation of girls these words from Marmee: “Time erodes all such beauty, but what it cannot diminish is the wonderful workings of your mind.” That’s enough to give this version of Little Women high marks.

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Sin City: A Dame to Kill For

Posted : 5 months, 1 week ago on 1 July 2018 05:58 (A review of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)

One of the graphic novels of Sin City, a collection of short stories involving major and minor characters from throughout the books, is named Booze, Broads, and Bullets. Those three words boil down Sin City to its most basic components, and this reduction is evident in this long gestating sequel. A sequel that’s so bad that it makes you call into question your enjoyment of the original.


Sure, there’s a few moments where everything is flowing along nicely, but they’re incredibly rare. The film is best when it sticks to the older narratives and far away from anything creator Frank Millar has recently penned. The ultimate failure of A Dame to Kill For is that more than half of it is occupied by original material, and it only underscores how far Millar’s writing has fallen in recent years.


A Dame to Kill For is still visually eye-popping, but it’s a world of artifice where sex, violence, and death no longer have any weight or consequences. This is pulpy noir on steroids, and it leaves behind the more important aspects of that genre’s effectiveness: mystery, danger, interesting characters and quotable dialogue. Sin City had real conflicts powering through its narratives, and it took the occasional moments of silence to really power through the visual audacity and mayhem to leave behind something real.


The problems start with the opening short, a patented ludicrous thing taken verbatim from Booze, Broads, and Bullets called “Just Another Saturday Night.” It finds Marv waking up in the middle of a car crash and retracing his steps to figure out how he got his infamous black jacket. It could be fun, but even the short story was more concerned with “cool” looking moments of violence than telling a coherent story, so it translates over. Of course, when you use three of the best storylines in one film that does tend to leave behind some of the weaker ones for a sequel, except the title story is one of the strongest.


So it was on the printed page, so it is in the film. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is frankly sloppy until we get to that particular story, and then things start gelling for a brief period of time. Thank Eva Green and Josh Brolin for finding the right tone of dead-eyed seriousness and joyful kitsch in their line readings as femme fatale and lovable brute. Not even the woefully bad makeup on Stacy Keach and Mickey Rourke can distract from the fun and brutality on display here, but that vibe doesn’t last long enough.


We’re quickly thrown back to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s wasted talents in a generic tale of card sharks and a duplicitous Senator. Senator Roarke (Powers Boothe, still dripping oily menace) was an overheated character in the comics, but the two original stories orbiting around him and adding to his evil and powerful overreach transform him into a comical, borderline ridiculously corrupt caricature. Even worse is how much of a livewire, quirky actor like Gordon-Levitt is reduced to another lovable brute, Lady Gaga is sacked with a generic bit-part, and genuine weirdo Christopher Lloyd isn’t given enough to do.


Then we end with the much-teased Nancy revenge story, a storyline that’s been promised since the first one was such a surprise hit. It turns out to be a limp thing that attaches itself to That Yellow Bastard but cannot summon up quite as much pathos and earned empathy as that story did. Jessica Alba is there, once again wearing a bad blond wig and playing a stripper that doesn’t actually take anything off, Bruce Willis cameos, and Marv shows up again. It’s more of things people liked in the first one but rearranged in a way that suggests that Millar’s lost the plot on what it was that people liked about these original stories in the first place.


And that’s what lingers in the mind while watching A Dame to Kill For. Whereas the first film was equally as violent and sexual, it knew when to pause the voiceover narration, the quips, the barrage of bullets long enough to marinate in the atmospherics on display and allows its actors to display some personality. A Dame to Kill For neuters those strengths in favor of doing the opposite, so it all looks the same but doesn’t feel the same. It somehow feels even flatter than the paper the stories were originally printed on.

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Posted : 5 months, 1 week ago on 1 July 2018 05:58 (A review of Cake)

The ingredients are all there but the batter never mixes correctly in Cake. A stellar performance from its star cannot hide the deficiencies in the rest of the film, nor can it entirely keep you interested, as there’s no one and nothing for her to work with or against. Jennifer Aniston deserved all the accolades she got, and probably deserved that withheld Oscar nomination more than Felicity Jones’ long-suffering wife in The Theory of Everything, but there’s nothing else going on throughout Cake to invest in.


Cake treats the central event of what caused Aniston’s Claire to wind up as a chronic pain sufferer with the beginnings of one hell of a prescription pill addiction as a mystery, but what they think are breadcrumbs are actually gigantic signposts. By the time Cake gets around to unraveling the mysteries at its core, we’ve already not only figured them out, but met them with an indifferent shrug. This is what happens when all of the other characters are stick figures and blank slates for the main characters to act and project upon.


Why is it that primarily comedic actors only get props for doing drama? Aniston’s quirky, comedic work on Friends was career making, and she’s done plenty of respectable comedic film performances, but it’s typically films like The Good Girl and Friends With Money that crop as proof of her acting talents. None of this is to say that Aniston’s performance in Cake is not worthy of the reams of praise heaped upon it, but it needs to not be treated as some kind of heretofore unknown talent.


Aniston goes deep into the physicality of the character, and her choices to telegraph and demonstrate living with chronic pain feel correct in both the micro and macro levels. Even better is how someone dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” forsakes that likable image so completely and relishes playing someone so incredibly selfish, mired in grief, and frequently terrible in her self-destructive, sardonic actions. There’s no warm fuzzy feeling in her Claire. She’s a woman at a crossroads and sinking in emotional turmoil, and Aniston does her best to make the emotional catharsis of the ending work.


She can’t quite pull off the trick, but that’s got little to do with the strength of her work and more to do with the weakness of the script and the faux-deep directing choices. Cake doesn’t want to examine the outside world that’s pressing in on Claire’s privileged existence, and it reduces several Mexican characters to variations of the Magical Negro and its two male characters to gender-flipped supportive players with nothing much to say or do but act as a springboard. It’s Aniston’s show, and she makes a meal of it, but it’s a goddamn shame that nothing else rises to her level because then we really could have had something here.

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Something’s Gonna Happen

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 25 June 2018 04:01 (A review of Something's Gonna Happen)

This EP of Marshall Crenshaw covers wasn’t released until 2003, but they were recorded for a never-to-materialize album in the late 80s/early 90s. For those who know anything about Ronnie Spector’s career that would put us right around the time of the Eddie Money duet “Take Me Home Tonight,” the iconic use of “Be My Baby” in Dirty Dancing, and just after her comeback album Unfinished Business, a respectable if dated pop/rock affair.


Listening to these songs it’s obvious what drew Spector’s attention to them. Crenshaw’s retro-minded pop/rock ditties recall the sounds of Buddy Holly, Brenda Lee, and the Wall of Sound. Her voice sounds right at home on songs like “For His Love,” which gives her a chance to flex her that quiver and sensual need in her voice, and “Favorite Waste of Time,” which provides ample room for her sass.


If there’s any misstep here, it’s “Communication.” Proof that while Ronnie Spector’s voice was plenty versatile and dexterous, it’s no match for rockabilly guitar and a heavy twang. Her voice evokes the big city, of steam coming up from subway grates, of neon lights, and romantically staring off into the night sky while sitting on the fire escape. It’s just an odd match of singer and style, even if she does sing the hell out of it.


But one misstep cannot undue the thrill and joy of listening to Spector wrap her iconic vocal style around these songs. Handclaps, several backup singers, and a propulsive oldies beat populate Something’s Gonna Happen. It’s the title track that emerges as the best of the bunch as Crenshaw’s naughty little track sounds tailor made for Spector’s bad girl of rock and roll persona. Even Crenshaw approved, stating “Ronnie’s version of those songs are my favorite of any covers that I’ve had so far; I think they’re just beautiful.” Something’s Gonna Happen is the strongest set of solo material from Spector after 1999’s She Talks to Rainbows.


DOWNLOAD: “Something’s Gonna Happen”

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A Bay of Blood

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 June 2018 05:00 (A review of A Bay of Blood)

Is this Mario Bava’s most violent film? It seems entirely possible as it contains thirteen deaths, each a series of escalating gore and slaughter until it all culminates in a sick joke. Bava’s particular brand of giallo was built upon nihilism, but A Bay of Blood feels completely unconcerned with narrative coherence in favor of shocks, titillation and splatter.


If Psycho was the first steps of the slasher genre then A Bay of Blood went a long way towards hardening the template. It plays like a dry-run of Friday the 13th at several moments, not only in its segue of horny teenagers in the woods getting hacked to pieces with a machete but in its several lingering shots of the shimmering, simmering body of water that becomes a repository for several secrets. Consider Bava’s film a historical curiosity with a direct line to draw to the Friday series (including two kills borrowed over for Friday the 13th Part Two) but later day bratty imitators such as Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer.


It all starts off beautifully with a sequence that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Hitchcock film, and then it just keeps going revealing how the film will play out. There’s a disregard for spatial and narrative coherence in favor of shocks for the sake of it. Why open with one graphic and shocking murder when you can have two? Even if the second one dilutes the first and just makes you go “wait, what?” instead of the intended reaction.


The biggest frustration with Bava here was his flagrant disregard for a story. Things just happen, relationships are just thrown about with no good rhyme or reason, and supporting players appear just to up the body count. It doesn’t add up to much of anything, but it’s entertaining to watch while it unspools and bleeds out before you. It’s all red herrings to keep the plot moving along fast enough for you to never pause long enough to think about what is happening and why. It’ll appease the gore hounds the most, but I’ve seen better Bava.

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House of Frankenstein

Posted : 5 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 June 2018 04:59 (A review of House of Frankenstein (1944))

Six films into the franchise and Universal finally decided to make their all of their premiere monsters team-up in House of Frankenstein, an entertaining mid-tier entry that should’ve been better. You get five for the price of one here, as the Monster, the Wolf Man, Dracula, a mad scientist, and his hunchback assistant all appear. But wait, there’s more! You get the flooded ruins of Castle Frankenstein, the damaged property of Ludwig Frankenstein miraculous erected and in working order, a lovely gypsy girl, torch wielding townsfolk, and Boris Karloff returning to the franchise – all of that in 71 minutes!


The gag is that House of Frankenstein barely involves the Monster and has no relatives bearing the name. The plot is actually an elaborate revenge story about Karloff’s mad scientist using the various creatures to do his dirty work, be it kidnapping, seducing, or killing his enemies. Dracula and the Monster are big names with small presences here, but Larry Talbot gets a plum supporting part. It averages out to be just enough material for each of them to prove worthwhile and logical for their appearances to mean something.


Talbot and Lon Chaney Jr.’s continued anxiety, disgust, and emotional crisis in the role make for humanizing moments that reveal the eternal struggle of good and evil at play in the best of these films. You root for Talbot’s cure, be it a way to relieve the curse and a return to normalcy or the peace he seeks in death and no longer having to fear or worry. Talbot’s possibly the most developed and interesting of the major monsters as his continual resurrections only anger him and he longs to no longer kill or cause destruction.


The same can’t be said for Karloff’s mad scientist. He’s a man who relishes his villainy, and Karloff makes a meal of the part. It’s thinly written stuff, but he plays it like its going to win him an Oscar. Even better is the strange poetry that emerges as the story progresses and he becomes the reanimator for the Monster. Once he was the stitched together son and now he’s the patriarch, the master of afterlife and the man who dared to play god. His character also exhibits a strange protectiveness of the Frankenstein legacy and lineage, a plot point that becomes unexpectedly poignant by his mere presence in the role.


It’s just a damn shame that this same kind of thoughtful examination or smart casting couldn’t extend to the hunchback, Dracula, or the Monster. John Carradine was a wonderful character actor, but he’s a dud as Dracula. He completely lacks mixture of Old World charisma and erotic danger that Bela Lugosi effortless brought to the role, and this Dracula feels too modern, earth-bound, and American. The effects to transform him from skeletal remains to corporeal entity are dream-like and artful in their artifice, so at least his limited appearance isn’t a total strikeout.


Once again, we’re sacked with a hunchback character that pines for a gypsy dancer that won’t return his affections. They can call him Daniel all they want, but Quasimodo by any other name is still Quasimodo. Nothing original is done with the part since Karloff’s Niemann can easily scan as a Frollo stand-in, or they forced this Quasimodo clone into the shape of an Igor/Ygor/Fritz. Both readings can easily scan as accurate.


Despite being dubbed House of Frankenstein, the Monster only appears in a small amount of the finished product. Consider it the curious case of the Monster as he spends much of his time as a cadaver that must be brought back to life, yet again. The makeup looks cheap here, and the most action the Monster does is throwing Daniel out a window and being thawed out of the ice. How’d we make it six films deep in this franchise only to end with the Monster being a glorified cameo and no Frankenstein to rebel against? Still, the scenes between the Monster’s lifeless corpse and Karloff are fascinating for their meta-textual entertainment.


Still, House of Frankenstein is a minor entertainment. It manages to make the meeting of this many flagship characters a coherent narrative, and that’s no small trick to pull off. There’s enough moody, inky shadows and omnipresent smoke and fog to give it some personality, which is a major step-up from both Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein. And there’s the joy in watching Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff play off of each other while surrounded by a laboratory or carnival caravan, and that’s a pretty joyful experience for me. It may not live up to the hype that putting all of these characters together would engender, but it’s still a fun lazy Saturday afternoon entertainment.  

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