Monday, August 18, 2014

Meteorites! (1998)

A disaster TV Movie that's so bad its actually good!

A blogger friend of mine tells me that Tom Wopat, the heroic family-man protagonist in this Sci-Fi Channel original movie, was once the hunky Bo Duke from The Dukes of Hazzard. This seems appropriate since Meteorites is an instance of what I call the The Dukes of Hazzard Phenomenon: to wit, a cultural event-be it a film fad, a television show, or a famous scandal-enjoys massive popular attention even though any particular person will tell you he or she has no interest in it whatsoever. In my experience, The Dukes of Hazzard was this curious phenomenon's prototype; for several seasons the show enjoyed fabulous ratings even though, at least publicly, everybody said they thought it was stupid. 

So too with the spate of asteroid movies, the anchors of which-Deep Impact and Armaggedon-both suffered horrible reviews and much popular derision in the remarkable year of 1998. These movies nevertheless did well enough commercially to earn the flattery of t.v. and direct-to-video filmmakers, who wooed them with Asteroid (a terrible film targeted to Blockbuster's shelves) and our current offering, Meteorites

"What are the chances of a meteor hitting Leroy [our provincial town]?" Tom Johnson (Wopat) asks the local astronomer. "None," is the answer. Meteors don't hit the Earth by definition, the astronomer explains. But meteorites are a different question altogether. This game of semantics underscores the fact that both of these made-for-the-living-room movies are named after the celestial rocks themselves, whereas their cinematic inspirations take the central event-the rock's ultimately-averted act of hitting the Earth-as namesakes. This semantic game also covers up the fact that names don't matter. The point is that enormous rocks might be hurtling toward Earth to end our way of life in a fiery cataclysm. Call them what you like, you blind fool. 

The film opens as Tina McConnell (Tracey-Louise Smith), first in this movie's procession of featured adolescents, bitches out her parents for not letting her take illegal drugs. "I wish you would all die," she shrieks, "so I could do what I want." She storms out of the house and sulks on the swings in the backyard, thus procuring survival when a meteor (meteorite, sorry) slams into the McConnell household and kills everybody else. 

John Whitehorse (Pato Hoffmann), Leroy's native-American sheriff, calls in the hunky-though-old Tom Johnson to help him investigate the McConnell wreckage, because Tom has a background in explosives. Tom's son Mac (Darrin Klimek) is trying to have sex with Crystal Cassidy (Amiel Daemion), the Mayor's daughter, and Tom's daughter, Rene, is a finalist in Leroy's Miss Teen UFO competition. Crystal's dad, Mayor Cass Cassidy (Marshall Napier), has cooked up an insurance scam to pay off various creditors, because the Cassidies have feuded with the Reigerts for decades and this has spurred Mayor Cassidy into a number of bad investments to live up to his father-legendary around Leroy for his "Midas Touch"-and thus maintain the family reputation. Crystal and Mac start having sex at the Mayoral mansion but are interrupted by the burglars (who are, incidentally, Reigerts) Mayor Cassidy has hired to rob his own home. The Reigerts hold Mac and Crystal hostage and fuss over them for a while, but then meteorites start landing on everybody and they have to think fast. I probably forgot to mention that Rene's (Tom's daughter, Mac's sister, are you getting all this?) Miss Teen UFO contest is but a single event in Leroy's annual UFO Festival, which is being investigated by an unscrupulous reporter for a tabloid called "The National Interrogator." Mayor Cassidy ignores Tom and the Sheriff's entreaties to cancel the festival in light of the impending meteorite shower because the festival generates revenues for the town. Oh, and Tom is riddled with guilt because years ago someone named Tony perished when Tom and Tony were partners in a bomb squad.

I spent all this time explicating the complicated character relationships in Meteorites-well, for the most part because I was bored, really, but also because of the role these character relationships play in this movie, which is similar to the role they play in Deep Impact... as well as Outbreak, The Towering Inferno, Titanic, The Day After, The Poseidon Adventure, et cetera. That is, a maze of complicated human dramas is established, only to have an enormous, blazing non-sequitur (comet, hotel fire, nuclear war, sinking ship) come barging unannounced into the storyline and disrupt it all, making it largely irrelevant. Occasionally a pre-disaster plot point or character element will resurface--Tom's experience with explosives pays off, for instance, as do his protective, paternal instincts-but generally all these soap-opera human relationships amount to a sandcastle that is swept away in the tide of disaster. 

So why go through all the trouble of learning about these characters' personal lives, if in the long run these films aren't actually about them so much as they are about a comet, fire, or earthquake? It's a difficult question, I imagine, but an important one. Armageddon is the miserable failure that it is because it paradoxically gives the disaster too much screen time, focusing for the most part on the mission to destroy the Texas-sized asteroid and not so much on the characters' personal lives. Meteorites, whatever its made-for-t.v. flaws (fair to poor performances, conspicuous exposition, awkward cinematography, implausible plot developments), delivers that most precious disaster-movie commodity: its disaster rips apart not a half-realized fictional world but an elaborate and complex one. 

And maybe that's part of why these movies are such guilty pleasures (millions of people watch them but later aren't willing to admit they liked them). The catharsis these movies offer seems juvenile: this childishly destructive pleasure of watching the filmmakers work hard to create something only to then blithely destroy their creation. It's hard to say why so many people, myself included, find this enjoyable. It'll probably continue to be hard to figure out until we actually admit to ourselves that we enjoy it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The President's Analyst (1967)

A underrated lampoon that was ahead of its time

Has anyone else ever heard of this satirical cult gem? Long before Watergate shook Hollywood out of its government-is-your-friend fantasy-world, The President's Analyst directed by Theodore J. Flicker and starring James Coburn, entertained the preposterous notion that an American secret agent could assassinate one of his own countrymen, and this amusing movie is bold enough to play this cynical scenario for laughs. Move over The Parallax View and Capricorn One, here comes the real deal. 

Though positioned as a comic thriller, it's kind of stupid for a lot of reasons and commercially bombed but it was also ahead of its time. The plot has sci-fi overtones with James Coburn playing Dr. Sidney Schaefer, psychiatrist who is hired by the United States Government as the President’s ultra top secret personal psychoanalyst. After the initial euphoria of working for the worlds most important man, the stress of the job creeps in setting the stage of his descent into paranoia and suspicion. Instead of the normal thrills we would expect, this movie instead takes on the humor tinged, spoof track! Watch for the scene when James Coburn spins around looking for imaginary pursuers while a female chorus line imitates a theremin on the soundtrack ; I was on the floor! 

Funny as this movie is, it plays into your dark fear that the Canadians are up to no good. Here they are right next door to the most powerful country in the world -the U.S. of A., is who I mean -- and you're going to tell me all they're worried about is keeping warm? There's no way they don't want a piece of the American pie, and in our false sense of security we probably aren't even monitoring our Northern border so that when the million-some-odd mounties that have been massing there flow into our motherland we'll be taken completely by surprise and helpless to stop them. I've kept this fear secret lest people think I'm crazy. But lo and behold, The President's Analyst features a militant, gun-toting, anti-American Canadian agent. It's the only movie I've ever seen that does and the music scored by Lalo Schifrin rightly amplifies the paranoia.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Ride the High Country / Guns in the Afternoon (1962)

A tepid showdown in the high sierras

This was American action director Sam Peckinpah's second film and it bears only a few traces of his 1969 masterpiece, The Wild Bunch. Even though Newsweek called it the Film of the year, you'll most likely yawn, roll your eyes, and fidget uncontrollably until the closing scenes. The film lacks the raw violence and debauchery that cements each scene of the later film. 

Ride the High Country (released in the UK as Guns in the Afternoon) is set in California's High Sierras, which is a welcome contrast to the Monument Valley backdrop that typifies the 1950s westerns directed by the likes of Hawks and Ford. The scenes in the high country are awash with warm yellows and russet tones evinced in the aspens, sorrels, and tarnished leather vests. The film's conceit and for that matter the conceit of most of Peckinpah's westerns is that times are a changin' and leaving behind old men, who adhere to a shared code of honor. 

Gil Westrum (Randolph Scott) and Steve Judd (Joel McCrea) team up to bring gold back to the town of Hornitos from a distant mining camp. They take a young upstart named Heck Longtree (Ronald Starr) with them and wind up with an unexpected burden en route when they stop for the night at a remote farm. This burden is a young woman, Elsa Knudson (Mariette Hartley), who is running away from her father and who wants to marry a former suitor in the mining camp. 

The script hints at an incestuous relationship when Elsa tells her father, "It seems every kind of man is the wrong man except you." Some of the stereotypes are particularly annoying. For example, although the sniveling, quivering bank clerks, who enter into a contract with Westrum, are supposed to make the hero look even more heroic, actor Scott simply isn't all that convincing. What's more, the two old men reminisce at length about the good old days when they were partners, but the stories they share about their feats make them seem more like tin men than iron men. 

What works in the film is when the old timers shut up about their past and start talking about their predicament. It's then that their past deeds become easier to swallow. After Elsa gets roughed up (read almost raped) at the camp by her fiance, Billy Hammond, and his three brothers, the couriers not only must return her safely to her father but also get the gold back to the town. 

What then unfolds is a shootout at close quarters reminiscent of the gunfight at the OK Corral. At one point, having already taken one round in the gut, Westrum tells his partner, "Let's take 'em head on, halfway like always." Then, as the two climb out of the ditch where they were hiding and face off with the three remaining Hammond brothers, one of brothers shouts, "Start the ball, old man!" Despite the movie's tiresome build, it's worth watching to see who buys it in the end and who doesn't. Besides, its considered by many critics as one of his finest!  

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sufjan Stevens - Enjoy Your Rabbit (2001)

Eclectic Electronic Noise Pop and more!

The American indie folk singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens’ electronic laden musical style is just about the last thing that listeners would have expected from a former member of a locally popular but largely obscure indie folk quartet Marzuki and  then touring organist, toy pianist and banjo player with wacky indie gospel pop psychedelia group The Danielson Famile. I know, you have to be hardcore indie folk addict or a music historian to know this!

On his second album, Enjoy Your Rabbit, Stevens presents nearly 80 minutes of what he calls “a collection of programmatic songs for the animals of the Chinese zodiac.” What does that mean, exactly? Well, Stevens uses a variety of electronic and acoustic instruments (and though it is hard to believe, no external samples) for a sound that falls somewhere between a cheesy 80s cop-show theme song on crack, creepy circus music, and Mouse on Mars playing the soundtrack to Braveheart

Each song is unique as he extracts fragments of Pop, Rock, and even Celtic music, throws it all together in an electronic mix with synths and glitches, then takes it all apart and puts it back together again. With melodic sections interspersed throughout portions of fragmented, deconstructed musical chaos, listening to the first part of Enjoy Your Rabbit feels like getting a garbled transmission of someone flipping radio stations in outer space. 

One of the album’s highlights is the title track, which sounds like an electronic musician’s take on Math Rock, then ends with an off key James Bond theme reference. “Year of the Monkey” is also fun, with a fuzzy beat and a wah-wah riff combined with warped music-box sounds that collapses into itself and ends in an onslaught of fuzz. 

On the rest of the album, Stevens tones down the glitch and focuses more on multi-layered, orchestral numbers. These give him away as someone who has written music for films – they would serve as a creepy but perfect backdrop to a freaky technological thriller. If anyone ever decides to remake Tron again, they should ditch Daft Punk and call Stevens for the score. 

Note - Enjoy Your Rabbit was Stevens’ second album, and the third release from his independent New Mexico label Asthmatic Kitty. In 2009, the entire album was completely reworked and rearranged by the Osso String Quartet and re-released as Run Rabbit Run. If you like this album, you must check it out too! 

Saturday, August 2, 2014

S&M - Metallica (1999)

Reliving Metallica's most musically unusual album ever!

While the pairing of superstar American Heavy Metal band Metallica with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on this one of kind live album might seem musically bizarre at first notice, the weird combination recorded on April 21–22, 1999 at The Berkeley Community Theatre in California is actually a logical fit. 

Metallica's music had and has always been full of the kind of dynamic shifts that are often found in classical music, and Michael Kamen (1948 - 2003), the famous American composer of films like X-Men, Brazil, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon and conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, had worked with established rock bands like Queen, Bon Jovi, Aerosmith, Queensryche, Def Leppard, Rush  and Pink Floyd for years. 

The first CD in this two-disc Album set opens with two instrumental pieces before launching into "Master of Puppets." This track sounds awkward, as if the band and the orchestra were still getting comfortable with each other. The orchestra plays a small role on this track, providing brief symphonic flourishes in between Metallica's waves of heavy metal thunder. "Of Wolf and Man" and "The Thing That Should Not Be" work better, as Metallica backs off a bit to actually play with the orchestra. By the time the band reaches a stellar track "No Leaf Clover," both parties seem to be delightfully in sync and actually feeding off of each other's intensity beautifully. 

Disc two begins with Metallica's majestic super hit "Nothing Else Matters." If any song in the band's repertoire is suited for the orchestral treatment, this is the one. Unfortunately, singer James Hetfield's over-the-top performance prevents the song from being a total standout. That honor goes to "One," the band's epic tale of a critically wounded soldier. Two of the heavier tracks on disc two, "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "Enter Sandman," are highlights as well. 

Needless to say, the orchestral flavor is often drowned out by Metallica's bang-and-slam attack, but overall this odd combination works and works rather well. There are even times when Michael Kamen and his orchestra steal the spotlight. When the two groups really work together, as they do on "One" and the instrumental "Call of Ktulu", the results are impressive. Ignore the lukewarm reception this album received from the critics and listen to it for a unique collaboration of musical style it provides! Besides, there must be a reason why this still sold over 8 million copies worldwide!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Snowpiercer (2013)

JohnyTwoToes likes this post apocalyptic shaky train ride! 

Snowpiercer is a deeply powerful, allegorical and smartly written post apocalyptic film, but seemingly missing something. I liked it for a 3 star film but not 4, like I was expecting after all of the buzz I had heard. Rumor has it there is an over 3 hour long director's cut floating around but that the studios thought it was too long for us mere mortals to grasp. 

We, after all went in droves to see long ass films like the Lord of The Rings trilogy (each film 3-4 hours long and then some), the full length Dances With Wolves (over 3 hours), Black Hawk Down (almost 3 hours), The Wolf of Wall Street (almost 3 hours), Gladiator (almost 3 hours). Yea, those studio execs really know what we want. NOTICE TO STUDIOS: PLEASE STOP SPOON FEEDING US LIKE WE ARE ALL A BUNCH OF BABIES. WE CAN HANDLE LONG FILMS AS LONG AS THEY ARE GOOD. 

Roger Ebert once said, "No bad film is short enough. No good film is long enough." Some might take issue and I have seen films that are time just right but Snowpiercer ends seemingly lacking something after all that it promises. It starts out in the thick of things which is okay but there is very little leading up to where the film starts. I still liked Snowpiercer and would recommend it. 

Chris Evans who, aside from his role as Captain America has not made that big of an impression on me as an actor. The Fantastic Four films were laughably bad and Cellular was decent, at best. In Snowpiercer, Evans is terrific and is the sole reason to see the film. His performance as Curtis, the chosen leader of the planet's survivors on the train called Snowpiercer (after the Earth is destroyed) is a challenging act. He is a intelligent leader but with doubts, a no-nonsense guy but still made of all that is human so he comes out brave yet flawed and strength. 

Apparently, there was a knock down, drag out fight between the film's Korean writer and director, Joon Ho Bong and the studios which delayed the release for almost an entire year. What has been released is a good, if not great film. It IS worth watching at the theater, but hoping they release the full length director's cut on DVD, is my wish. I blame the studio not film makers. Snowpiercer-*** out of 4.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Top 20 Albums of 2000 - No.20 to No.16

Compiling the best Albums of the year 2000 - Lets starts with the bottom 5

Here's a rather ambitious attempt at listing the year 2000's best Albums! Why 2000 you may ask? I feel it was a momentous year with ground-breaking new music, brand new bands and brand new genres. The Y2K millennium bug doomsday clock made it even more enticing!

Anyway, lets say I have a love/hate relationship with these "best of the year" lists. I love reading other people's lists to see if there are any potentially great albums I might have missed, but I hate making my own "best of" lists. Part of the reason for this list loathing is that I know for certain I will regret making this list the moment it is published. By the time this issue hits the streets, I will have decided that some of these albums don't belong on the list or should have been ranked differently. 

Another reason I enter this endeavor with much trepidation is the fact that ranking Albums can be much like the fabled "apples and oranges" dilemma. How can you really compare a live techno album with some acoustic fingerplay? I wrote this list for one simple reason - to pay tribute to the albums that meant the most to me that year. I have literally spent weeks listening to some of these records, and I'm sure that I'll still be listening to them over the next several weeks (again). I hope that you'll read this list with the same spirit that it was created, and view it as a starting point for creating your own "best of" list. After all, the list you keep yourself is the only one that really matters. 

20. Elastica - "The Menace" 

British punk rockers Elastica followed up their bratty debut with a daring, bold, experimental sophomore effort. Too bad hardly anyone noticed. "The Menace" wasn't a great album, but it was one of the more consistently inventive and interesting discs I heard that year. Reviewed here

19. Rage Against the Machine - "Renegades" 

On "Renegades," one of rock's most incendiary alternative metal bands paid tribute to the forefathers of "revolutionary music" (as well as ... um ... Devo) on their first cover album and fourth studio album. Their reworkings of classics like "Street Fighting Man," "Kick Out the Jams," "Maggie's Farm," and "Renegades of Funk" made the band's final studio effort a memorable one and platinum rated success. Unfortunately, RATM lead singer Zach De La Rocha left the band before this album was released (laying the seeds for Chris Cornell's Audioslave)!

18. Richard Ashcroft - "Alone With Everybody" 

Former Verve frontman, the English singer-songwriter Richard Ashcroft's solo debut was a hit-and-miss effort. The moments that hit - most notably "A Song for the Lovers," "New York," and "You On My Mind In My Sleep" - were enough to propel this CD into the Top 20. 


17. Modest Mouse - "The Moon and Antarctica" 

Many wondered if experimental indie rockers Modest Mouse could possibly work within the confines of a major label. On their Epic Records debut (and their their album), Isaac Brock and company made the album they always wanted to make but could never have previously afforded. "The Moon and Antarctica" is a difficult album to digest, and it reveals its secrets slowly, but the rewards are well worth the time that you'll have to invest in order to appreciate it. 

16. U2 - "All That You Can't Leave Behind"

Bono and the boys returned to their core strengths on their tenth studio album, making us remember why they were once the most popular and most critically acclaimed band on the planet. Lets not forget, this album sold over 12 million copies too!

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