Friday, December 12, 2014

Hum - Downward is Heavenward (1998)

Undeniably one of the most underrated alt rock albums of the '90s

Hum, were a critically acclaimed Illinois based alternative rock band of the '90s  who had their 15 minutes of fame with their "Stars" hit single and Downward is Heavenward, their fourth and last album released in 1998 was expected to sell more than its 1995 predecessor -  You’d Prefer an Astronaut which quietly sold over 250,000 thousand copies on release mostly on account of the Stars hit track.

Unlike what was commercially projected, this album fared poorly but was appreciated by both fans and critics so much that its still ranked amongst one of the best alternative rock albums of the 90s. 

Evidently, the band’s fourth effort was a dramatic step forward and finds Hum here at the peak of their songwriting and musicianship. Hum’s music has been described as hardcore, psychedelia, and almost everything in between. The musical references here are numerous and diverse, including outfits such as Helmet, My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth, and even a touch of R.E.M. (just listen to the melodies on "Ms. Lazarus" or "Comin’ Home" for proof of this). 

It would be unfair to label Hum as a hardcore band just because they have some heavy handed guitar lines here and there. Hum also has a soft side, a pop side, a shoe-gazer side, and a psychedelic side that each appear from time to time on this album. Despite the ferocious guitar lines on many of the songs on Downward is Heavenward, lead singer Matt Talbott never really sounds angry. He actually sounds a bit introspective and reserved. The odd pairing works, though, making Hum more interesting than many of the hardcore bands playing similar music of those days. This is a slice of genuine 90s alt rock that you all msut listen to.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Beastie Boys : The Sounds of Science (1999)

Greatest hits, B-sides and Rarities from the Hip Hop Rap Rock Superstars! 

Most fans and critics would agree that few rap bands shaped the course of music in the '90s as much as the hip hoppers Beastie Boys. In the '80s, the  radical Beasties Boys trio comprising of Michael "Mike D" Diamond, Adam "MCA" Yauch and Adam "Ad-Rock" Horovitz  introduced rap to white high school kids when their Licensed to Ill broke down the barriers between rap and rock. Then, on the critically acclaimed follow-up, Paul's Boutique, the trio took sampling and rap song structure to brand new heights. Since then, the band fashioned a rap style that drew its inspiration from a multitude of musical genres - a distinctive sound that was comfortable borrowing riffs from just about any source, whether it be Cannonball Adderly, Zamfir, or even AC/DC. 

On their greatest hits compilation The Sounds of Science, the Beastie Boys packaged most of their  biggest hits along with a few new tracks and some rarities. Though it did well commercially, by trying to appeal to both die-hard and casual fans, the group ended up satisfying neither party. Casual fans didn't give a flip about hearing the insipid "Country Mike" material, while die-hard fans really didn't want to hear "Fight for Your Right" again. It's also a safe bet that only a small portion of the band's followers actually enjoyed their excursions into hardcore punk. The band would have been better off releasing The Sounds of Science as two separate CDs – one with the rarities and new tracks and one with the hits. 

As a collection of hits, the only noticeably absent tune was "No Sleep 'til Brooklyn." Perhaps the band was still bothered by the drug references in that song. As a collection of rarities, it's a shame that neither "Rock Hard" or "Spam" were included on The Sounds of Science. These songs had popped up on bootlegs for a while, and I'm sure many fans would loved to have clean recordings of these songs. Instead, they got a cover of Benny & the Jets that features a vocal by Biz Markie. It's funny the first time, annoying after that. 

From the start, the Beastie Boys knew they could never make a definitive "Greatest Hits" album. This is mainly due to the fact that their fans held widely varied opinions about which songs were/are actually the group's best. Some claim that Licensed to Ill is the band's best record, others argue that it's their worst. Knowing this, the band decided to let their fans even make their own custom CDs too. 

Whatever your reason, this anthology (in spite of all its inconsistencies) is a must for any fan of the 90s especially the hip hop genre that this uncustomary rap rock band truly redefined. 

Friday, November 28, 2014

Witchboard (1986)

Cheesy demonic 80s horror with freudian undertones 

You'd better know this typical horror slasher was made in the 80s by the Night of the Demons Director Kevin S. Tenney and has a cult following among 80s Horror fans. This review however is different - it talks a lot about the rather stupid plot, has plenty of spoilers  and a rather unusual Freudian commentary that's either gonna amuse or irritate you. 

Ok, so here it goes. Our Heroine Linda (the Whitesnake videos babe Tawny Kitaen), who has enormous hair, is caught in a love triangle between her current boyfriend Jim (Todd Allen) who looks a little like Dennis Quaid and ex-beau Brandon (Stephen Nichols), a sensitive 80s man who believes in spirits, cries a lot, and wears his shirts unbuttoned to the navel. 

One day, Brandon breaks out a ouija board at a party to converse with the departed, but the boorish Jim makes sarcastic comments about it until nobody can tolerate him. Jim considers becoming a believer when an aggravated spirit drops a slab of drywall on his Eddie-Van-Halen-alike construction worker buddy, but when his girlfriend takes to swearing he really starts to wonder what the fuck is going on. Brandon thinks the spirit is that of a ten-year-old boy named David but later on it appears David's time-sharing the ouija board with Malfeitor, a mass murderer. This madman is using Linda as a "portal." Linda becomes addicted to the ouija board and ends up succumbing to "progressive entrapment" she quits going to school and neglects her personal hygiene. 

Meanwhile, an irritating psychic is skewered on a sundial. Jim and Brandon are struck with barrels and fall into a lake. Linda locks herself in a room and sways back and forth violently. Finally Jim decides he's had enough of this and corners the possessed Linda. They fight for a while until a detective who always wanted to be a magician comes in wielding a gun and is promptly killed. Then it turns out Jim, not Linda, is the "portal" - unless Malfeitor is lying  so Jim shoots the ouija board and this fixes the problem. 

Okay, so the ouija board is the portal. Wait, who's the portal again? So the movie's a tad confusing, but it's good b-movie fun. There's a nice meta-fictive moment when Jim - exasperated with Brandon's don't-you-think-I-know-how-crazy-this-sounds insistence that Linda's on the road to demonic possession - says sarcastically, "so what you're telling me is that I'm married to Linda Blair". But it seems to me equal parts slasher movie and possession story since the offending entity here is a mad killer and not a demon of some sort. It's even a Reefer Madness-type angle, since much of the film is clumsily concerned with the pitfalls of obsessiveness and addiction. 

One can also argue that Jim's emotional coldness is "closed" and that Linda's excessive warmth and compassion is "open," and through the ordeal they endure they are, respectively, "opened up" and "closed off" to a "compromise point" - Jim becomes more sensitive, Linda more assertive although you can make a sound argument that Witchboard's writing is a little too scattered to convey this point seamlessly. Linda might be "open" but in a more Freudian sense she's pretty "closed" - chaste to a fault, she starts the movie in virginal white, refuses to have sex with Jim when he pisses her off, and doesn't cuss. Maybe this is because Witchboard combines the slasher and occult/possession stories. 

In slashers, the Final Girl is "closed" (chaste, rational, observant, proactive rather than reactive), which enables her to avoid being "penetrated" (i.e., punctured) by the killer. In possession stories, the possessee tends to be more "open" (intuitive, in tune with the spiritual realm, empathic, what have you), which makes her more vulnerable to other-worldly "penetration" (i.e., possession) and makes sure there's a story to be told. Although Jim is pretty clearly "opened," then, what Linda represents is far less clear since she has to bear the contradiction when the movie chooses to combine two horror sub-genres that are largely at odds with one another. 

Seeing is believing this classic horror 80s gem. Watch it and let us know what you think.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Rush (2013)

JohnnyTwoToes loves the rush and so will you!

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I have never been a big car racing fan, but after viewing Ron Howard's Rush, I need to take a gander at it because this adrenaline fueled Formula One film is amazing from start to finish. 

Rush tells the true story of the intense rivalry in the mid 1970's between Formula 1 drivers James Hunt, the British superstar and Niki Lauda from Austria. Hunt with his brash playboy good looks, had talent for driving to match his personality. Niki Lauda was far more serious and his personality was as smooth as sandpaper. Lauda certainly did not make many friends, at first. Lauda had an intelligence for even creating his own car to make it lighter, faster and meaner. Hunt was not a dummy but spent most of his time off the track boozing and carousing with the females. They were from different backgrounds but one thing they had in common was their love to race and stare death in the face. 

Rush is a technical masterpiece. The racing sequences seem to be as real as anything I have ever seen on film. Director Howard has tight shots of pistons pumping, helmet cams, tires smoking going at speeds that would make us reach for the barf bag. But writer Peter Morgan and Howard have dug deep into the psyche of the two drivers. Lauda, from a wealthy business family angered he did not come into the family business, takes a loan out, finds a crew with an okay car and a sponsor who needs a driver and some cash. He works his way up to Formula 1 racing and succeeds. Hunt is in full self destruction mode with booze, drugs and women but when it comes to racing he does not know the words 'slow down'. Hunt is fully aware of himself as a person and a driver and makes no apologies for it, but when Lauda arrives, Hunt knows he had better get his game face on. 

Daniel Bruhl plays Lauda, whom they ineffectually refer to as 'The Rat' because of his unlikable personality and his overbite, but Lauda is publicly unaffected. Privately, he stews about it. "Happiness is the enemy," He tells his new bride, Marlene (Alexandra Maria Lara). "Once you have found happiness, you lose". Credit Morgan's script bristles with heart, intelligence and knowledge of the racing world but how men react to each other in competition, even at their darkest hour. 

The acting is first rate with both Bruhl as Lauda and Chris Hemsworth as Hunt delivering stellar performances. Their characters have real depth and we care about what happens to them, despite their flaws as people. They don't like each other but have a mutual respect for one another. They sustain each other on and off the track both professionally and personally. The supporting cast is equally effective with Olivia Wilde as Hunt's wife who quickly tires of his shenanigans and Alexandra Maria Lara who shines as Niki Lauda's wife. She seems to understand him the best and loves him anyway, even when times are their worst. Pierfrancesco Favino is great as legendary driver, Clay Regazzoni, Lauda's teammate. They don't like each other much either, but they do grow to become friends, anyway and Hans Zimmer's score is first rate, worth purchasing. It sounds different than his previous scores which seemed to repeat themselves. This score by Zimmer is fresh and exciting and keeps us invested in the action and the characters. 

Ron Howard (who is directing Hemsworth in the upcoming Moby Dick film, Hearts of The Sea) shows us why he is one of Hollywood's finest directors. Rush is exhilarating, intelligent and bold fun from start to finish and why this did not get more Academy attention last year is beyond me. Yes, Rush is THAT good. Rush-**** out of 4

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Pacific Heights 1990 Film Score - Hans Zimmer

JohnnyTwoToes recalls one of the early 90s' most notable film scores

1990's Tenant from Hell Thriller Pacific Heights is not one that most people remember as a 90s' classic. This underrated mystery starring Michael Keaton, Melanie Griffith, Mathew Modine & directed by the Oscar winning John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy) only received a lukewarm reception from critics and audiences when it was released. 

This film however marked the debut of Michael Keaton into the foray of 'the villain' realm as up until this point he had played likable buffoons and all around good guys and German-born Composer Hans Zimmer moving into new musical territory. 

Zimmer scored a slew of big films in the late 80's and early 1990 and garnered a lot of attention including Oscar nominations with scores for Rainman, Black Rain (two of my personal favorites), Driving Miss Daisy, Bird On A Wire and Days of Thunder. Pacific Heights was an under-the-radar film and the score that was released is in four movements from Varese Sarabande. 

As the film is structured, so is the score. Movement one starts with a mysterious crescendo of chords and that blossom into a bouncy piece featuring saxophonist Gene Cipriano and vocalist Carmen Twilley. Uses of the Zimmer staple percussion, an added mandolin played by Jim Matheos and lovely piano work by Mike Lang (who has worked with John Carpenter on some of his scores) make the first movement a fitting start; creepy and unnerving. Walt Fowler adds some nourish tones with his muted trumpet for the end of Movement One into Movement Two and throughout, while Chuck Domanico has some cool bass sprinkled in as well. Movement Two starts with Lang's soft piano as the music gives way to Zimmer's more acoustical side with some woodwinds and some additional horns conducted by Shirley Walker

Pacific Heights continues to combine all of these elements throughout the entire album. It is constructed as a film only here, it is without the visuals. Zimmer shows his diverse side in Movement Three with a nod to the far east with the introduction to the film's wise character, Toshio Watanabe played by the always reliable Mako, who is the first one to really suspect Mr. Hayes is trouble. Zimmer really cuts it loose for Movements Three and Four as the heroes really begin to uncover what Hayes is all about. The score does not follow a specific pattern but, therein is its charm. As in the film, the score slows up to allow us to soak up the beautiful and quiet moments but Zimmer, who can do action as well as anyone can, knows when to ramp up the action. 

In Movement Four Zimmer's score has a theme, so to speak, of determination for our heroes, as they uncover more plans of the evil Hayes. When Zimmer punches it, the score is frightful and chilling and one of his better scores. It is a nice mix of electronics mostly with some orchestral arrangements and the other players, here really compliment this score and enhance a familiar but effective film.

If you want piece of 90's film scores with elements of power electronics and modern classical, this is the original motion picture soundtrack that you must be listening to. Besides, Hans Zimmer currently in the limelight  again for his Interstellar score never disappoints.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

JohnnyTwoToes recommends this flawed but entertaining reboot!

Godzilla has had probably more sequels, prequels, reboots than just about any franchise in film history. Let's just say it has had more tweaks, adjustments and face lifts than Donatella Versace. Some have been campy, some trashy, some trashy fun but none as visually awe inspiring than Gareth Edwards latest 2014 incarnation, Godzilla

This time, the film takes off with quite a bang as a nuclear scientist (Bryan Cranston) arrives at his workplace, a Japanese nuclear power plant, that has spawned a power plant meltdown. What has caused this? No one knows, but it is such a disaster that Cranston's character spends the next fifteen years trying to find out what REALLY caused the meltdown. His son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) has moved on with his life, into San Francisco with his wife (Elizabeth Olsen) and their young son. Needless to say, all hell is about to break loose with worldwide implications. 

Gareth Edwards who had only directed the independent film, Monsters, has been charged with a tall task (no pun intended). Reviving a franchise whose recent track record has met with limited success. Mostly because the films focused more on the monsters than on the people that are affected by them. The monsters are pretty standard characters. They are huge, lumbering and oafish. They are loud, screech a lot and generally are awoken not in the best of moods. 

Edwards has done something as a director that makes this Godzilla a film worth viewing. He focuses on the characters more than the monsters. I mean, we all pretty much know what to expect from the monsters. The human elements of this Godzilla are worth watching. Kind of, anyway. Cranston will put the hooks into you but he is surprisingly not in the film for very long. The remainder of this Godzilla focuses on Ford, his wife and they are really not anywhere as intoxicating as Cranston's character. Ken Watanabe is a scientist who has been studying this for many years and he spends most of his screen time looking like a deer in the headlights. He does what the character requires and sells his character, but nothing that is memorable. Which brings me to Taylor-Johnson and Olsen. They, again, do what is required to sell their characters but they come across as so uninteresting that I had a hard time fearing for their safety as characters. They are a little too bland for my tastes, but what sells this Godzilla is the visual feast that Edwards has created. There is no shortage of eye popping visuals and the personal stories, although they are underwritten with homogenized characters, are ENOUGH to sell the action. 

The action here is tremendously staged and the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is worthy of an Oscar nod. Yes, it is that good. I have heard people complaining about the score by Alexandre Desplat which I found to be curious. It is a fine score and worth purchasing. Will he be remembered for this score in particular? Probably not, but it is an excellent score with a full orchestra that has been peppered with a sparse but effective compilation of electronics. 

This edition of Godzilla is not 100% great especially Godzilla's screentime but it is worth viewing and most people will agree that, this time around Edwards has created a bleak world where our own devices can kill or create our greatest enemies. This is the best Godzilla they have ever created and the look of the film is tremendous, I just wish the script by Max Borenstein was a little more meaty and that the lead characters had some more angles to them. The acting is efficient enough so you can believe the story on face value but in the sequel (yes, there is a sequel and Edwards, for the moment, is returning as director) I would like to see some more dimensions to the characters. I mean, if they want us to believe in the story and invest our time and money into this then make it worth our while, too. 

Still, I don't want to downplay this film too much. Godzilla knows what it is and has a fun way of telling us. It does not take itself too seriously, so we can sit back and enjoy ourselves. The sequel is coming, for the moment, tentatively in 2018. Godzilla-*** out of 4

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Beck - Midnite Vultures (1999)

A memorable mix of funk rock, R&B with an alt rock twang

In spite of a Grammy award for the Best Alternative Music AlbumBek David Campbell aka Beck's 1998 release Mutations, was little more than a side project, apparently finished in 14 days – an album to keep the fans content while he was busy working on the proper follow-up to the critically adored Odelay (1996). So, on his 1999 seventh album effort, Midnite Vultures, Beck took his musical playfulness and experimentation to a whole new realm. 

Midnite Vultures is a cut-and-paste alt rock blend of 70s funk, 80s hip-hop, 70s R&B and 80s dance music. If Rick James and Kraftwerk had made an album that was produced by the Beastie Boys and engineered by Prince, the result would have sounded a lot like this. For an album that's mostly about sex, Midnite Vultures oozes sexiness all throughout. Just as Beck takes a unique approach to his music, on this album he takes a unique view of sex and what is considered sexy. 

At various times, Beck is both admiring and parodying the likes of Prince, Rick James, and Barry White. Just look at the album's horns-and-bass opener, "Sexx Laws" The chorus finds Beck singing "I want to defy/ The logic of all sex laws/ Let the handcuffs slip off your wrists/ I'll let you be my chaperone/ At the halfway home." On "Nicotine and Gravy," Beck's narrator tells a potential conquest that he'll "leave graffiti where you've never been kissed." The song bounces and oozes along on a drum and bass groove until it gets to the snake-charming synth break in the middle. Never before has the line "Her left eye is lazy" sounded more seductive. "Mixed Bizness" is the best funk number on Midnite Vultures, and finds Beck singing that he'll "make all the lesbians scream." 

"Get Real Paid," a warped little '80s techno number, features the line "Thursday night, I think I'm pregnant again" followed by the line "Touch my ass if you're qualified." Needless to say, we're not dealing with your basic "Oooh baby I want you so bad" lyrics here. The rolling, twangy "Peaches and Cream" is one of the wilder sexcapades on Midnite Vultures, as Beck sings "You look good in that sweater/ And that aluminum crutch/ I'm gonna let you down easy/ I've got the delicate touch." Other lyrics include "We're on the good ship menage a trois" and "You make a garbage man scream.

Beck's most blatant parody of the sex music genre is the hilarious "Debra,". It's the wickedly funny story of a guy who picks up a girl at JC Penney and takes her for a ride in his Hyundai, all sung in the most sincere Prince-like falsetto. Simply brilliant. 

For most artists, albums like Mellow Gold (1994) and Odelay would be considered as creative highpoints. But for Beck, after listening to this 'album of the year' Grammy nominated album, it appears that those albums were just the beginning, he exceeds even your highest expectations.

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