Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Five Movies That Should Have Been Great

Not every movie can be great. That's a simple, and one hopes fairly obvious, truth. It's okay, though, because most movies aren't really aiming for greatness anyway. Instead, they provide the backdrop of mediocrity against which the brilliant, inventive work of more talented creators can shine.

There is, however, one infinitely frustrating variety of not-great movie: the movie with real potential for greatness that falls short. As if to twist the knife, the glimmers of scope and originality these films have is usually enough to win them critical praise, despite the fact that they failed to live up to their potential. Today, I'm going to talk about five movies from the past five years  or so that should have been great but failed.

As usual, this is all just my opinion blah blah blah, everyone entitled blah blah, subjective blah personal taste blah no right answer blah blah blah blah blah. You get the picture.

Oh, before I start, I should throw this up just in case:

SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!

I am going to talk with a frank lack of restraint about each of these five films. If you see a title come up that you don't want spoiled for you, then stop reading immediately. Failure to do so is not my problem.


Alright, with that out of the way, let's get started.

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Life of Pi (2012)


Directed by the supremely talented and eclectic Ang Lee, Life of Pi  was a film that clearly had a lot of effort put into its creation. The short version of the story is that Pi is telling a writer in the present about his wild adventures stranded on the open sea in a lifeboat with a decreasing number of animals, until it's just him and a tiger named Richard Parker (a name which, presumably, we're supposed to find funny). It is absolutely gorgeous, providing a rare glimpse at the true potential of CGI in crafting a striking fantasy world. What this critically lauded darling and Academy Award winners lacks, though, is everything else. It's all style, no substance. All polish, no car. The dreary, self-important, "Everybody look at how quirky and unique I am! Please pay attention to me! I want to be special!" protagonist Pi gets tiring within a matter of minutes. The ham-handed attempts at metaphor (Oh, the animals represented people the whole time? Wow, that's such a shockingly deep reflection on human regression during survival situations that the movie had better explain it in painstaking detail just in case a five-year-old in the back missed it) and philosophy (Clearly we should all adopt or reject deeply held beliefs on the basis of whether or not they seem scary to think about. That's totally deep and intellectually honest) are juvenile at best. In the end, it was a grand spectacle with a brilliant director and a potentially interesting premise that fell flat on its face due to bland characterization and inexplicably clumsy handling.

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True Grit (2010)


On paper, the Coen Brothers' dark sense of humor and great handling of tough, world-weary law officers on the fringes of civilitaion in films like No Country for Old Men  and (to a lesser extent) Fargo  seemed to make them the perfect minds to remake one of the most well-known westerns in cinema history. Granted, it's a pretty straight-forward "I'm lookin' fer the man who shot my pa" kind of story, but if anyone could infuse some unique character into the old classic, it would be these guys. And they got Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, and Josh Brolin on board, so there was no shortage of acting chops in the cast. Well they did capture a darkly striking view of the western frontier on a visual level, at least. Yet the overall result was a tired, pointless remake that utterly failed to improve upon the original. The screenplay didn't even bother to change things up, choosing to just stick with a more-or-less straight forward retread. Despite how laughably superior Bridges and Damon are to John Wayne and Glen Campbell in terms of acting skill, they both manage to give less convincing and less memorable performances. Bridges captures the stumbling drunken loser side of Rooster Cogburn's character, but he has none of Wayne's gravitas and his incomprehensible growling slur relegates any dialogue he delivers to half-glimpsed background noise. Damon is shockingly even stiffer and less interesting than Campbell was, and the inexplicably universally-praised newcomer Hailee Steinfeld delivers every line like she's a grade-schooler practicing her reading aloud skills. Brolin turns in the best performance of the lot, but he hardly has enough screen time to matter. This could have been John Wayne meets No Country, a darkly powerful western for the ages. Instead, it was just a pretty-looking but ultimately boring remake.

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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)





I can't even remember the last time I was so bitterly disappointed by a movie. In retrospect, after Guillermo del Toro left the project, dropping directorial duties back in Peter Jackson's lap, this was always going to be a disaster. Jackson had already done his Tolkien epic, which was amazing, but that part of his career was behind him now and he didn't want to do it again. It was evident in the way he kept fishing for other directors to take over the chair, and it was evident in the finished product. Despite the substantially larger budget, everything felt like a cheap knock-off of the original. None of the weight or significance of the previous Jackson trilogy is anywhere to be found, characters are one-dimensional and boring (with the lone exception of Gollum), the looming threat is more like a background nuisance, the world looks and feels fake, the padding needed to drag out a single book for three films really shows, and the over-reliance on fart jokes and horrible slapstick humor to float the "it's a kids movie" notion just serves to make the whole experience feel dumber. I knew not to expect the greatness of the groundbreaking Lord of the Rings, but I never thought Jackson and Co. would phone it in to this extent.

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Django Unchained (2012)



 Saying anything bad on the internet about a Quentin Tarantino film is just asking for trouble, but I'm going to do it anyway. Django is one of the clearest examples I can find of a movie that was truly great for 3/4 of its run time, only to piss it away at the end. Despite Jamie Foxx's clearly-designed-to-be-Will-Smith protagonist taking center stage in name, he's overshadowed by DiCaprio's slightly overrated but still quite compelling villain. The two of them combined are dwarfed by Christoph Waltz, whose absurdly good turn as the bounty hunting dentist Dr. Schultz cemented the notion that if he played nothing but supporting Tarantino characters for the rest of his career, he'd retire with more Oscars than Katherine Hepburn. The story is compelling, the action is fun and exciting, the characters are engaging, the acting and dialogue are all great, and the film has style to spare. 90 minutes in, I was sold on the idea that this was a great film. 120 minutes in, I was still on board, but I was ready for the big finale. 165 minutes in, when the closing credits finally rolled, I was pissed off to see it all fall apart so badly. There's a point, where Waltz's character has the opportunity to take his deal with the devil, as it were, and walk away with cash in hand. Instead, he shoots the villain right in the head. Awesome. Henchmen quickly gun him down, and the ensuing massive shootout was the logical conclusion. Django could have killed Samuel Jackson's "Uncle Tom" style character (who was right there), scooped up his captive wife (who was right there), burned down the mansion (which he was in) and rode off into the sunset to the satisfaction of all. Instead, this massive shootout concludes with him being captured, imprisoned, walking around in the desert for thirty fucking minutes, then going back and having an entirely redundant shootout in the same house, where he finally does all the stuff he should have done in the first place. Not only did this drag on way too long, it did so after passing right by the logical climax, and it made us endure an entire final act in which easily the two most compelling characters are already dead. It's still a good movie, but it could have been so much better if it hadn't fumbled at the goal line.

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District 9 (2009)



Of all the movies on this list, Neill Blomkamp's feature length debut is the hardest for me to include, yet it is the most deserving of this blog post's title. It's hard to include because I genuinely like this movie, but it fits the descriptor perfectly because it was one final act away from being one of the greatest sci fi films of all time. The premise, that an alien ship carrying refugee dregs of an advanced society arrives above Johannesburg and the passengers quickly become a hated underclass consigned to slums on the city's outskirts, is excellent. It sets up a powerful look at (among other things) racism, classism, systematic government oppression, the power of bureaucracy to turn people into numbers, and the effort of the oppressed to preserve their own cultural identity. Shot in a pseudo-documentary style, it really sells the idea, making the world feel real and the events of the story seem vital and compelling. Then, in the final act, it evidently decides that a compelling, hard-hitting story and powerful social commentary are way less fun than robot fights and explosions. The film morphs from something wonderful and utterly unique into Transformers, the 14-year-old boys in the crowd rejoice, and those of us previously enthralled by the film's originality and power let out a groan of despair as the greatest sci fi film that never was becomes yet another movie about rockets, robots, and alien plasma guns.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Metal Women

Butcher Babies. Clearly they're all about the music.
I've complained about a lot of female-fronted metal bands. Bands who rely on the sex appeal of their vocalists annoy the crap out of me (and that's true regardless of gender, but in metal it's usually a female vocalist appealing to the largely male metal fan base). Stylistically, Nightwish and their ilk have drawn my ire on plenty of occasions too. In my most recent "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" review where I griped about two more female-fronted bands, I made the remark that I hated seeing shitty music get a ton of attention just because the band producing it had a hot chick in their ranks. Lest ye think I'm just being a misogynist, please note that my issue with this trend is that women are underrepresented enough in metal as it is, and it bothers me that women with actual talent tend to be ignored in favor of the aforementioned "hot chick" bands. That's not to say that beautiful women can't have musical talent, because they most certainly can. In fact, I'd call several of the women I list below quite attractive. The point is that what's important should be the quality of the music, not the way the band members look in skin-tight leather.

In the spirit of putting my money where my mouth is, I'd like to present to you a few talented women in metal who I think deserve your attention. This is merely a starting point, and as always I encourage you to hunt further on your own. I just felt somewhat compelled, given my recent grumblings on the topic, to provide some names. These are the ones I've chosen.

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Name: Mallika Sundaramurthy
Band: Abnormality
Role: Vocalist
Genre: Brutal Death Metal
Country: USA

Abnormality may only have one full-length album out, released in 2012, but it's a good record. And the excellent, meaty harsh vocals provided by Mallika Sundaramurthy leave the likes of Alissa White-Gluz so far behind in the dust that it's like comparing a Corvette to a unicycle.

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Name: Uta Plotkin
Band: Witch Mountain
Role: Vocalist
Genre: Stoner Doom Metal
Country: USA

On a lighter note, Uta Plotkin's smokey, soulful vocals dominate the stoner doom output of this Portland-based outfit. She's been with the band for two albums now, and her debut on their 2011 release South of Salem  was one of my favorite albums of the year.

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Name: Karen Gilligan
Band: (formerly) Cruachan
Role: Vocalist, Percussionist
Genre: Folk Metal
Country: Ireland

Gilligan is no longer a member of the band, but she has appeared on every Cruachan album save for their 1995 debut. The clean female vocals with harsh male vocals approach has been used to great effect by many bands, but with the arguable exception of Draconian I think Cruachan have done it the best. Her unusual (for metal) vocal approach gives them far more character than most folk metal bands.

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Name: Dr. Mikannibal
Band: Sigh
Role: Vocalist, Saxophonist
Genre: Avant-garde Metal
Country: Japan

Possibly my favorite metal album in the past five years came from the brilliantly creative Japanese outfit Sigh, whose front-woman delivers a wide array of vocal styles and throws in some cool sax work to boot. Oh, and it's not musically relevant, but that "Dr." title isn't just a stage name. She actually has a physics Ph.D.

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Name: Wata
Band: Boris
Role: Vocalist, Guitarist
Genre: Everything
Country: Japan

How can I explain the hyper-prolific Boris? With a career spanning two decades and more than twenty albums, this trio seems to dip and dive and wander into every weird crack and crevice the music world will allow. The best description would be to say that they're the Asian version of the Melvins. Wata has been a part of this powerhouse of weird since the beginning.

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Name: Liz Buckingham
Band: Electric Wizard
Role: Guitarist
Genre: Stoner Doom Metal
Country: UK

She wasn't a part of the original trio, but Liz Buckingham has wielding her guitar in the wizard for over a decade now. Whether one would call the lineup changes that brought her on board as Bagshaw and Greening left an improvement or a downgrade is largely a matter of personal preference, but as a guitarist in one of the world's premiere doom bands, she's played a big role in producing some really excellent material.

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As I said, this is just a sampling of names. At this point, most women in metal are vocalists, which is why vocalists dominated this list, though there are women who fill other roles in metal bands. A few examples: Justine Ethier is the drummer for Blackguard, Anna Murphy (and now Nicole Ansperger) provide folk instrumentation for Eluveitie, and Jill McEntee plays bass in Funerus (she also took over vocal duties on their last album). Unfortunately these women are still in an extreme minority, but hopefully with time more girls will take an interest in being metal musicians. In the mean time, let's pay more attention to women like these who have actual musical talent and less attention to women whose primary skill is looking really good in band photos.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Allegaeon - Elements of the Infinite

Last month, American technical melodeath outfit Allegaeon released their third full-length album, Elements of the Infinite. It was my first exposure to the band.

As some of you may already know, technical death metal is typically not one of my favorite styles. I don't hate it, but I tend only to take it in small doses. Melodic death metal, on the other hand, is an old favorite but it's been going through something of a quality drought in recent years. With those statements in mind, I have to say that the "meh" cover art, bland album name, and even blander band name all had me feeling pretty skeptical about this record. Despite hearing some positive buzz, I came very close to just ignoring it.

That's why we should not judge a book by its cover.

It turns out, this is probably my favorite tech death album since Beyond Creation blew me away with 2011's The Aura. The key, which so many bands seem to miss, is to use all that technical wizardry as the means rather than the end. Songs progress, the album has a natural flow to it, the hyper-proficient drumming drives the music's forward momentum, the plentiful solos are well-constructed and interesting, and the guitar riffs are distinct and engaging. Even the bass comes out to play, prominently rounding out the sound and providing some entertaining flourishes of its own. Probably the least impressive part of the whole record is the vocal work, which is very good in its own right but doesn't really stand out the way the instrumentation all does. I would also be remiss if I didn't point out the tasteful sprinkling of choir singing and orchestral instrumentation that kick things up a notch in the sweeping drama department.

The cool thing about this record, in my opinion, is that this is a somewhat underutilized combination of sub-genres. Basically, technical death metal bands trace their lineage back to Suffocation, where they turned left while the slam bands went right and the brutal death metal bands charged straight forward. The trouble is, most bands never branch out from there, so they end up sounding like wanking, watered-down Suffocation wannabees with about 1/3 the direction and 1/3000 the testicular fortitude. Allegaeon, though, sound more like an amped-up version of Septicflesh cross-bred with early Soilwork. There's really no reason a heavy, technical take on melodeath can't work (in fact I'd say it's a perfect fit) but for some reason I don't seem to see it done very often. Here, it's executed wonderfully. The result is a best-of-both-worlds situation where melody engages the listener but doesn't water down the heaviness, and technicality fuels the material without driving it into a huge pile of spaghetti.

That was a pun about noodling.

Sorry.

My point is, this is a very good record, and that's coming from somebody who is presently a bit disillusioned with melodeath and who rarely gives tech death albums high marks.

Grade: A

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Goatwhore - Constricting Rage of the Merciless

A couple weeks ago, the 6th full-length Goatwhore release hit the shelves.

Goatwhore have, over the past decade, established one of the most well-rounded resumes in extreme metal. They're part death, part black, and part thrash without ever committing to one over the others, and somehow, they've managed to keep most fans of all three sub-genres happy. They're consistent without getting boring. They have melody without being wimpy. They have underground street cred, but they're accessible to metalcore fans.

For me, the band's balancing act between all these factors is perhaps more impressive than the music itself. This is a good record, like all Goatwhore records, but like all Goatwhore records I get the feeling that being good at a lot of things comes at the expense of ever being really great at any one thing.

That said, if you know the band (which most metalheads do, by now) then you pretty much know what to expect. There are no surprises here, as the harsh vocals, driving riffs, intense delivery, and rounded approach are all back in full play yet again. There were a couple places where I felt more of a -core sensibility coloring the music, but it was never enough of a departure to be really distracting.

All in all, it's another very strong release from a very strong band.

Grade: B+


Tuesday is Blues Day (#2)

Today's post is about the blues, but in a less direct fashion than last week's.

What do When the Levee Breaks, Dazed and Confused, and Whole Lotta Love have in common? If your answer was "Led Zeppelin didn't write any of them, but they pretended to" then you win a gold star. I could dedicate whole chapters to this topic, but I'll keep it relatively short and to-the-point: Zep were notorious plagiarists, and while they stole from musicians in several styles, their blues idols took the brunt of this musical theft. Sometimes songs were copied almost exactly. In some cases, the songs were altered considerably. In other cases, lyrics lifted from one song might be set to music copied from another. Or a few songs might all be strung together into one longer medley. In nearly all cases, though, the common thread was that the original artists were not given credit by the band.

I love Led Zeppelin's music as much as the next guy, but this is a striking example of the infamous '50s and '60s pattern of rock artists profiteering off the work of pioneering blues artists. Taking inspiration is great, but while guys like Eric Clapton openly champion their musical heroes, other artists engaged in far shadier behaviors. It bothers me, since I like to see credit given where credit is due. In that spirit, today I'd like to share a few old blues tunes that may seem a bit familiar.





There are tons of examples, in various forms, so now that I've posted a few of the original songs in their entirety, here is just one of many Zeppelin plagiarism samplers available on Youtube. Enjoy!