Saturday, April 19, 2014
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Supposedly the Very Best of this Classic Country/Folk Rock Duo
The compilation box set Highway: 30 Years of America is allegedly considered the "best" of this folk rock band’s output. To be honest, a more appropriate "best of" collection for America would be a vinyl single with "Horse With No Name" on one side and "Tin Man" on the other. Even those two songs aren't all that interesting, but they do have at least a little camp-humor value. The other 62 tracks on this three-disc box set include typical odes to "Woman Power" such as "I Need You," "Baby It’s Up to You," "Only in Your Heart," and "My Dear."
There’s nothing wrong with uplifting songs about womanhood, but they all sound pretty forced when sung by a group of guys. Highway also includes quite a few songs with themes that still seem to be stuck in the ‘60s. How else could you explain song titles like "Nothing’s So Far Away (As Yesterday)," "You Can Do Magic," "The Last Unicorn," "Sister Golden Hair," and "Daisy Jane"?
Some of these songs were recorded well after the band’s heyday – America continued to record will into the mid-Eighties, even though no one really cared about them after the mid-Seventies. Their last album "Here and Now" was released in 2007. Halfway through the second disc of this box set, you begin to realize that America really only wrote five songs. They just re-arranged each of these songs a few times and changed the words around a bit.
Still, I can understood why someone would like to own a few songs by America – these songs are relaxing, smooth and non-challenging. It’s fine music for listening to when you’re in the lounge at a Holiday Inn, for example. But for the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would want to own SIXTY-FREAKING-FOUR songs by America.
Saturday, April 12, 2014
JohnnyTwoToes revisits what was one of 2011's best film scores
2011 and 2012 brought two great scores from the BAFTA winning newcomer Scottish film score composer Paul Leonard-Morgan; 2011's Limitless and Dredd in 2012. Both feature Morgan with a mostly synthesized score and both films were inherently terrific films, as well, enhanced by his brilliant scores. Limitless with its sci-fi overtones was by far one of the best new scores by a new composer I have ever heard.
For those who haven't seen it yet, Limitless tells the story of a writer (Bradley Cooper) with a bad case of writer's block who discovers a magic pill that he can take that will unlock all of his brain's power and help him accomplish incredible feats. Only problem is when you crash you really crash and it is not long before all of the wrong people want what Eddie (Cooper) has.
The film was clever and intriguing and Morgan's score is an energetic and toe tapping blend of percussion and synths. At about 55 minutes of music, it is safe to say that this has most of the music actually used in the film. Starting out with 'Opening' where Eddie stands precariously on a ledge of his New York City apartment wondering how he got to this point, Morgan uses a wonderful theme that he sprinkles throughout the score. It is a six or seven note motif used in brilliant form for not just 'Opening' but my personal favorite tracks with 'Trading Up', 'Trashed Hotel', 'Hiring Eddie' and 'Happy Pills' where he infuses an array of electronics and synthesized percussion. If you are exercising, these are tracks to jam to.
'Psyched' starts with Eddie's frustration with his writer's block until he meets up with Vernon who gives him the pills. 'Eddie Knows What To Do' is a beautifully floating track as Eddie starts to feel the power of the pills take effect and his brain starts to burst out with ideas. It continues with 'Trippy' as the power of the pills seem to bring back even the most minute memories even from his college days. 'I Still Love You' is another sublime track as Eddie tries to patch things up with his girlfriend, Lindy (Abbie Cornish). She agrees to give him a second chance.
'Limitless' is the title track that shows Eddie on the fast track making friends in all the right places in finance and the stock market and 'Coming Up' continues with Eddie's success, but Eddie starts to see there is something wrong as he is almost out of pills. He also garners the attention of a hot babe who later turns up dead, a Russian loan shark and a man referred to as Tancoat and the music turns to the staccato and pulse pounding percussion as Eddie is chased by the loan shark and Tancoat. For Eddie, though there is no stopping him; onward and upward.
'The Walk Home' is a nice but short track that is when Eddie starts to realize he is coming down and 'Down The Hatch' continues with the down side of the addiction. The remainder of the album has a nice mix of hard pulsating and driving themes for 'Escaping Tancoat' and 'Lindy Chase' and the softer and more sublime tracks especially 'Van Loon', the billionaire business man who is dangerous to Eddie in ways Eddie has yet to learn and 'Lindy Leaves Eddie' when Lindy fears her own life is now in danger. 'Phone Tap' is a chilling track as the Eddie realizes the walls have not only sprouted ears but they are closing in on him, as well.
There is not one track that is wrong on this album. It is a happy and bouncy score that works on all levels. Be it soft or strong, pop or new wave, Limitless is an engrossing score and it will pull you in as will the film. Up until this point, I had never heard music by Paul Leonard-Morgan and although he had scored a few films (mostly shorts and Scottish documentaries), he had almost exclusively scored television shows most notably the British show, MI-5 also known as Spooks (which is available and highly recommended from Amazon and iTunes). Now he is on the fast track with two knockout scores for two of their respective year's films for Dredd and Limitless. Both are available from Amazon and iTunes for download. Morgan's most recent release is the John Cusack CIA action Thriller - The Numbers Station (2013). Know more on his official website.
Wednesday, April 9, 2014
A Vivid Slice of 90s UK Club Culture
Made in the vein of Acid House (1998) and Go (1999) Human Traffic garnered a fair load of both critical and negative reviews and media hype when it was released. Considered a Cult movie now, some say it is the only british film that truly captures the nineties, the clubbing era of the UK 90s in particular, others will object to it's easy attitude to drugs and its frank depiction of youth lifestyle.
Human Traffic is not set in Manchester or London, but rather unglamourous Cardiff representing Anytown, UK. Towards the end, we see shots of the city that look like the world's most boring postcards, partly explaining why the youth turns to the 48 hour thrills. Some of the strong Welsh accents are hard to understand, so fortunately the main characters are from elsewhere: London, Liverpool, Ireland for example.
The plot isn't too complicated - the characters are introduced, then on Friday night they go to the pub, then a night club, followed by a party. They get high and come down. What is interesting is how they reveal their insecurities to each other. There's Jip, who works in a clothing store, and has a prostitute for a mother. He suffers from impotence. Koop works in a record shop, and is insanely jealous of his girlfriend Nina having contact with other men. His father is in a mental hospital. His girlfriend works in a fast food store with a lecherous manager. The other main female character Lulu, is a student with a history of attracting the worst boyfriends. Then there is Moff (Danny Dyer in perhaps his best performance) who supplies the others with MDMA. His father is a police superintendent.
This was Justin Kerrigan - the Welsh filmmaker's first full-length movie. It appears he was influenced by artsie directors like Woody Allen, Hal Hartley, Martin Scorsese and Kevin Smith though there is also a Tarantino like scene where Star Wars is analysed in the kitchen. Despite all that it is still a quintessential British youth movie of the 90s and a must for any serious 90s UK cinema cinephile.
A special mention about the soundtrack! Even if you don't end up liking this film, your sure gonna love the soundtrack. There's loads of 90s music from a wide ensemble that includes Underworld, Primal Scream, Orbital, Fatboy Slim, CJ Bolland, Armand van Helden, Carl Cox, Felix Da Housecat, Ferry Corsten and many more.
Monday, April 7, 2014
JohnnyTwoToes finds the charisma missing in this second installment
Thor : The Dark World picks up several months (maybe even years) after the last film ended. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has gone back to Asgard to try and salvage peace among the Nine Realms that are seemingly always at war with SOMEONE. Jane (Natalie Portman) and Darcy (Kat Dennings) have gone to England to do further research on the unknowns of space and time with their teacher Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). When Darcy and her new intern, Ian find some kind of wormhole in an abandon warehouse in England that is when the proverbial crap hits the fan. Soon the Dark Elves have awoken, not in the best of moods and battle for the Aether that has possessed Jane for some reason. Thor must return to try and save the Earth and the Nine Realms.
I was not that impressed by the first Thor film. It had its moments and was not a bad film, I just did not get into it as much as everyone else did. I did however, thoroughly enjoy The Avengers which was a great film. Thor: The Dark World has some of the same elements as the first film as well as some fairly clever comedy sprinkled throughout. It also has some references to other characters from The Avengers that are kind of clever, as well. Where I seem to loose interest is when the film gets bogged down with so much detail we don't need about the Aether, the Nine Realms, the coming alignment of the Nine Realms, all of the scientific mumbo jumbo that is spewed throughout this film and the film's heavy reliance, once again on visuals.
Thor: The Dark World joins the lists of countless other big budget films that are overstuffed with snazzy visuals, extravagant production values and sets. These films then suffocate and become as stale as the croutons in my cupboard. The Avengers, Captain America, the Iron Man franchise all are heavy on the production side of the film BUT they have intelligent scripts that incorporate the visuals in a matter that enhance the story rather than stifle it. They also have interesting characters that interact with the visuals in a convincing way so that we accept the visuals as part of the story and even as a character in itself.
No one seems to be having any fun in Thor 2. Alan Taylor, who replaced Patty Jenkins as director in 2011 siting 'creative differences', had only directed Ian Holm in The Emperor's New Clothes(2001) as his biggest film. He has only 3 or 4 directed films on his resume, still he shows promise as a director and Thor 2 does have it moments, as well. There are some funny bits but as soon as we start getting into the characters and the story, here comes another special visual effect to break the magic.
Natalie Portman looks like she would rather be anywhere but here and as I read some of the background on the production of Thor 2, she was so angry that Patty Jenkins was replaced and she tried to get out of the film until the studio reminded her she was under contract. I guess she saw what was coming.
Thor 2 to its credit is a nice looking film and the visuals and production values are no doubt impressive. They have put some thought into the details of creating a fresh new world(s) on how the Nine Realms looks - the Dark Elves are truly malicious looking and the action is well staged. The problem is the script is heavily weighted on things most of the viewer (myself included) could not understand or even care about. I mean we get overall but it is detail overkill. For that I place the responsibility on director Taylor and script writers Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely with the story by Don Payne and Robert Rodat. It is simply a little too much.
Thor: The Dark World is a nice attempt and does some things well, is well acted and Brian Tyler's score is a lush orchestral score that fits the film nicely. It is too bad that it is all dressed up with nowhere to go. Thor: The Dark World-**1/2 out of 4
Monday, March 31, 2014
JohnnyTwoToes finds this french themed crime comedy an uneven ride
Luc Besson's newest film, The Family stars Robert DeNiro as a former mobster who has turned state's evidence against his criminal "family". As a result, he and his own family, the Manzoni's, have been relocated to Normandy, France under the Witness Protection Program under the authority of F.B.I. agent Robert Stansfield (Tommy Lee Jones).
The problem is the Manzoni's seem to always bring un-needed attention to themselves by misbehaving so the F.B.I. is running out of places to hide them. When in Normandy, the Manzoni family sets about starting over.......again. The son, Warren (John D'Leo) after some bumps at school with the local bullies, starts operating a criminal enterprise at the school running numbers, extortion, cheating on school exams and all sorts of extra curricular activities, none of them legal. The daughter, Belle (Dianna Agron) has set her sights on the new exchange teacher in school, with her own "extra curricular' activities. Maggie, the mother (Michelle Pfeiffer) has her own problems just getting used to another relocation. Which brings us to Giovanni Manzoni or Fred Blake as he and his family have been named for this relocation. He claims to be a writer, and he is trying to write his version of his life with Agent Stansfield who is worried what Manzoni will say. Mr. Manzoni....errrr..I mean Mr. Blake also has his own fish to fry with the local water company and the chemical treating plant that sits not too far from the water plant. Meanwhile, the criminal 'family' is exhausting all avenues of searching for Giovanni and his family for snitching.
The Family is an oddly uneven film that seems to not know what it wants to do. Is it a social satire, a fish out of water story, an action film, dark comedy, slapstick or an amalgamation of everything? If it is an amalgamation then it works best as a satire.
There are a few funny moments mostly with the kids at their school. John D'Leo and Dianna Agron shine as brother and sister who both deal with their new school in their own way and film has some fun with that. DeNiro and Pefeiffer have some chemistry as husband and wife but The Family's plot is based on AMAZING coincidences, most notably a quote used in the local newspaper that leads up to your standard climactic shootout. There is more than just one coincidence that seems to rely heavily on a script (written by Besson and Michael Caleo based on Tonino Benacquista's book Malavita aka. Badfellas) which is scattershot all over the place.
Some material hits the mark but mostly, The Family is so uneven that it can't be taken seriously when it wants to be and the humor comes across uncomfortably since each character resorts to extreme violence to resolve it. There are other plot gimmicks as well that are introduced but never dealt with at all. Yet, this is not an awful film and there are some fun moments, but overall, the material is too dark to be laughed at and the real meat of this film is lost with the extra trimmings of too many paper thin characters and far fetched plot devices that undermine the whole point of the film. The Family is better than Stand Up Guys, but that is not saying much. The Family-**1/2 out of 4.
Thursday, March 27, 2014
Pearl Jam's Second Best Album. Period!
After the commercially and artistically disappointing 1996's No Code, Grunge pioneers Pearl Jam returned with their best disc since their smashing 1991 debut album Ten. Despite the amount of pressure on the band at that period, Yield sounds like a really good jam session that someone caught on tape. The band sounded looser, more sincere, and more inspired than they had on any album since their debut. A delight if you are a Pearl Jam or a 90s grunge rock fan like me!
Yield opens with the raucous "Brain of J." This song sends a strong signal that Pearl Jam was every bit as viable in 1998 as they were in 1992. Next up is "Faithfull," one of two songs written on the same day by guitarist Mike McCready. This song has a wide dynamic range, opening with McCready’s soft strumming before reaching what has been called "the Pearl Jam groove." The other track McCready wrote that day is Yield’s first single, "Given to Fly." Even though the song borrows quite heavily from Led Zep’s "Going to California," it’s still one of the most powerful tracks Pearl Jam had recorded in years.
Another of Yield’s highlights, "Wishlist," finds the band more optimistic than in year’s past. Did you ever think you’d hear frontman Eddie Vedder sing, "I wish I was a messenger and all the news was good"? In fact, the overall feeling on Yield is more positive than on any of the band’s other CDs. Whatever the reason for this change may be, it was a welcome one and critics and fans alike positively loved this album.
Other highlights on Yield include the folksy "Low Light" and the powerful "In Hiding." Other than one ill-advised, untitled track, there are no bum tracks on Yield, which makes it a drastic improvement over No Code. In the end, Yield is Eddie Vedder’s show. His stock may have dropped in the last few years, but he’s still one of rock’s premier frontmen. Vedder skillfully handles the wide range of emotions and topics on Yield, and he sings with a renewed sense of urgency. Grunge may be dead (well, almost), but Pearl Jam fortunately are still very much alive.