Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Blair Witch (2016)

Spoiler Warning: This review may contain spoilers [mostly vague - nothing too specific] from both the new Blair Witch and classic Blair Witch Project movies.

It is the first week of Autumn, and October looms on the horizon. What better way to kick off the extended Halloween season than with a sequel/remake of one of the landmark films in found footage canon? The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, several years before I developed a taste for horror (the impetus for that was the release of 28 Days Later in 2002, although I can trace isolated, formulative incidents throughout my childhood), but I do remember watching it at some point and having the impression that it was a uniquely terrifying movie. So how does this new take on the legend of the Blair Witch stack up? I'm sad to say that I didn't find it to be of the same high caliber. It has its moments, but suffers in a lot of places, preventing it from earning the timeless recommendation that I would give the original movie. In fact, I felt inspired to go and re-watch the original after I got home, so I would have fresh insight into comparing the two.

And let me tell you, going back and re-watching the original Blair Witch Project - even knowing that you never really get to see anything, I still felt that it constructed a genuinely terrifying atmosphere. "I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them." Sadly, we've come to a point in this genre where you can tell the difference between good actors acting like real people (in a brilliant move, I heard the original actors were cast for their ability to improvise), and not-so-great actors acting like characters in a cheap horror flick. The Blair Witch Project genuinely felt like a home video. But nowadays, found footage may be shot in an amateur style, but it still feels like a constructed fantasy. It's like every found footage film that comes out tries to ape the found footage that came before it, so that the genre moves progressively further from reality (like a VHS tape that degrades with each copy). My advice to prospective found footage filmmakers would be not to watch other found footage films, but random home videos on Youtube, and try to imitate their feel.

But I fear that found footage is just one of those rare concepts that actually benefits from being new and untested. Ironically, the more we polish and perfect the format, the more we lose the "realism" that makes it so effective. Case in point, I was both amused and impressed when the new movie opened with a note alleging that the following footage was indeed found (and not produced in a studio). Amused, because by this point, nobody actually falls for that conceit anymore. But impressed, because it showed that the film was dedicated to its format, and honoring what came before it. It's hard to believe, but though now it feels like just an homage, there was actually a time when the idea of found footage was not so familiar to the public consciousness, that a claim to reality could be taken to be at least possible to a large segment of a film's audience. (Going back to the first found footage horror movie from 1980, the creators of Cannibal Holocaust were actually put on trial for murder until they produced the actors who had allegedly been the victims of their little "snuff film")!

"We faked it because it's real."

One of the things that made the original Blair Witch Project so effective - apart from its believable characters (who may or may not have been likable, but felt real) - was its subtle approach. You could criticize the movie for not delivering its payload (and this is so often a criticism of found footage that the genre has begun to regularly include special effects into its budget now), but the way that it plays on the viewer's psychological fears - exploiting their imagination - is what makes it work.

It's worth mentioning that there is not a single jump scare in the original movie. Jump scares are easy. They're cheap. And though found footage is often cheap, it doesn't have to be sleazy. The new Blair Witch movie, on the other hand, is loaded with jump scares. It also utilizes a recent found footage trend that I am not especially fond of, which is the usage of "technical glitches" - abrupt cuts, loud static, and other audio/visual hiccups - to produce what is essentially a jump scare personalized to the found footage format. Easy, unsatisfying scares like these are a sign of laziness. They're a burger at a fast food joint instead of taking the time and making the effort to prepare a hot meal at home.

Clichés and character stereotypes are also a sign of laziness. In the original Blair Witch Project, there was conflict between the characters that developed organically as a result of the stress of getting lost in the woods. It was believable. In the new Blair Witch, you have manufactured drama such as the tension between one character who is black, and another who decorates his home with a Confederate flag (who otherwise shows no signs of racism, and doesn't really fit the "hillbilly" stereotype that's drawn for him). It's a shortcut when what's needed is some quality time in the writer's room.

And even though this movie is all about people freaking out in the woods, I felt like there was too much emphasis on the characters' reactions, and not enough attention paid to what was actually scaring these people. Like, give us some time to actually listen to the creaking twigs, strange animal noises, and other such bumps in the night - get us scared first, instead of just showing us how scared we're supposed to be, by having the actors demonstrate (some might say, over-exaggerate) for us.

Now, I'm not one of those people who is against gore in movies as a matter of principle - I thought the lawnmower scene in Peter Jackson's Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive), for example, was brilliant - but while the special effects in a movie like John Carpenter's The Thing are a sight to behold, this movie caters to the puerile mentality of an adolescent boy who delights in getting a good look at a festering sore. Gross-out has its place in horror, but that's not what I consider entertainment. I was actually compelled to look away from the screen in a few scenes - not because I was afraid of what I might see (which is largely the fun of a found footage film), but because I knew exactly what I was going to see, and I just didn't want to see it.

As far as the scares go, this movie throws all kinds of random shit at you. But I feel like I would better enjoy a movie with some consistent internal logic - more of an exploration behind the legend of the witch, and an explanation of her powers, perhaps - than a confusing hodgepodge of phenomena thrown in just to scare the audience. I mean, you could argue that that's what the original movie did, too, but then there was nothing so over the top that it didn't make some kind of vague notion of sense in the back of your mind. In this new movie, I swear, at one point it sounds like there's a T rex stalking our campers from the shadows!

Now, give me some context for a witch who can transform into an infernal beast to scare her prey (and some rational reason for her to do so), and I'm game. But throwing it in just because somebody thought, "wouldn't that be freaky?", disconnects me from the story. I want depth, not surface scares. Those lights that resemble UFO activity suggest an intriguing hypothesis, but the movie goes absolutely nowhere with it. And the witch appears to be able to manipulate the fabric of spacetime (like we saw in Grave Encounters, albeit less effectively), but why? The lore in H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House is hardly common knowledge.

But if there's one thing this new Blair Witch movie has going for it, it's that it makes up for the lackluster ending to the original Blair Witch Project. Although some may question if that's an improvement at all. I'll admit that I thought the ending to the original movie was anticlimactic the first time I saw it. But watching it again, I think I'd agree with the fans who feel that it was perfect, and that anything "more" would have ruined what made the movie so effective. Still, for better or worse, the extended encounter in the house at the end of the new movie is nothing short of harrowing.

But I won't spoil it for you, even though I'm not entirely convinced that it's worth sitting through this movie to experience. In conclusion, I wouldn't rate this movie mandatory viewing for anyone but dedicated found footage afficionados. The original Blair Witch Project, however, remains horror history, and I recommend it to anyone as one of the sterling examples of what the much maligned subgenre of found footage is capable of in its finest moments.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 5 (Part 2)

I hadn't realized when I watched this season that it was actually split in half (although now I regret not seeing it when it aired, and being part of the cultural excitement about catching the last episodes and finding out in real time what happens next), but in hindsight that makes a lot of sense. And since it's a longer season (16 episodes instead of 13) - and being the last season, there's lots to talk about - it made sense to split this review in half, too. Here's the final part!

Spoiler Warning: This post is going to discuss - and therefore contain major spoilers from - the second half of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad. The ending to the series will be covered. You have been warned!

S5:E9 "Blood Money"

I couldn't help noticing Bryan Cranston with the director's credit for this episode. Very cool. The X-Files used to do this in its later years, giving its lead actors an opportunity to get some directing experience.

What a haunting opening scene. Presumably taking place after the season opening flash-forward. Walt returns to his house, now all boarded up, to retrieve the poison he hid there. Such suspense. What all went down to get him to this point? Where is his family? How did he escape fate? Where is he headed now, and what is he going to do with that poison, and all those guns? (Also, it's amazing how the swimming pool has become a sort of character in and of itself, framing a lot of the intense, emotional moments of this series).

This is it. Finally. All this time, Hank never [seriously] considered the possibility of his own brother-in-law being a crime lord. But there were moments. The stolen chemistry equipment. The initials in Gale's lab notes. Hank had this image of Walt that precluded the possibility of seeing him in this way. That's why he could so easily brush off the tiny details here and there. But now, with the Walt Whitman book, and the damning connection it makes between Walt and Gale, whether he believes it yet or not, or wants to believe it, it's going to force him to consider Walt in a new light. And I think that the more he thinks about it, the more the pieces are going to fall into place. This will finally be the ultimate end for Heisenberg, as it always should have been. But how will it go down?

Oh, shit. Walt confronts Hank about the tracker on his car. Now Walt knows Hank knows, and Hank knows Walt knows he knows. He doesn't know how to respond, but you can see the heartbreak in Hank's face. I didn't think it would happen this fast. I thought they'd play it out for a while before the confrontation. But this is great. No pussyfootin' around. Now it's a battle of wills, not wits.

The whole scene is tense, but understated. We're not talking, like, explosions and things. I mean, yeah, Hank punched Walt, but they're barely speaking over a whisper. Yet the emotions...I feel buzzed just watching it. All the anticipation has been leading to this. I want to know what happens next. I don't want this episode to end - I want to watch the next one! This show hasn't been so exciting since I'd gotten into the habit of expecting its usual high quality. I feel like I'm watching the first season again.


"I don't know who you are. I don't even know who I'm talking to."
"If that's true - if you don't know who I am - then
maybe your best course...would be to tread lightly."

Spoken like a true Heisenberg. You think he's going to spin another lie to save face - the way he used to do to Skyler before she figured everything out. But no. No games here. Just pure ego.

Shit, I'm watching the scene again. Right now.

...

I have to say, for a scene I've been anticipating this whole series, it completely delivered. I wouldn't have predicted it'd go down quite like this. I wasn't even expecting it to happen so fast - and surely this is just the calm before the storm. But this is it - the confrontation between Hank and Walt when Hank knows that Walt is Heisenberg. And it is fantastic. Kudos also to Dean Norris for bringing it in this scene. As Hank Schrader, he's been a fun character, but kind of in the background. Here he goes head to head with the great Bryan Cranston, and possibly even comes out on top! I can't wait to find out what happens next.



S5:E10 "Burned"

Aftermath! Hank confronts Skyler, thinking she'll help him out (ha!). But she's concerned for herself (and rightly so). Things are spiraling out of control for Hank. He has no idea how deep this thing goes.

That's rich - Walt getting offended at Saul's suggestion to off Hank. Like he has any moral standing left...

Marie confronts Skyler. Emotions are running high. I'm totally digging this atmosphere. Hank's been hunting Heisenberg all this time, but there's no joy in finally finding him, because he's lost family in the process, and that's just devastating. All that's left is the cold desire - the need - to catch this monster. Somehow.

Pinkman! Oh man, I want to see what happens when Hank questions Jesse. I'm riding the wave now!



S5:E11 "Confessions"

Hank: "...make this all go away."

Ha. You can't make this all go away. I was hoping for a somewhat happy ending for Jesse, being that he's the one with the conscience and all. But with everything that's happened, I don't know that he could ever be happy again. Even if he manages to escape legal trouble, he'll still have that stain on his soul - in his memories, his psyche.

"He really did a number on you, didn't he?"

I'll say. With friends like Walter White, who needs enemies?

A confession! How far we've come since the first episode, which was the last time Walt attempted to record a video confession...

You know, I didn't think Hank would be able to crack Walt's defenses, but putting confessing in terms of "stepping up" and "being a man" - how will Mr. Ego respond to that?

Lol, oh man. By trying to frame Hank - that's how. A criminal mastermind to the end.


To the last, I tell you. Walt sounds like he's actually concerned for Jesse's mental state. But I know he just needs to make Jesse disappear, so as not to compromise his plans. It's probably just his sentimental feelings from working with Jesse that prevents him from simply offing him like everybody else.

And, yep - Jesse saw right through it. I'm glad he's finally calling Walt out on his bullshit. Then again, this is beginning to feel like the last we'll see of Jesse...

{expletives deleted} Jesse found out about the cigarette! Will Jesse be the one to finally kill Walt? Dammit, why am I going away for the weekend? I want to watch the next episode now!

It's funny how vague the episode synopses are becoming on Netflix, in order to avoid spoilers. "An unusual strategy starts to bear fruit, while plans are set in motion that could change everything." That sounds like something you might get in a fortune cookie, lol.

You know, I'd been thinking in these flash forwards that it looks like Walt is gearing up for war - but against whom? My first thought was, of course, the DEA. But could it actually be Jesse? All this time, I'd been waiting for the confrontation between Walt and Hank, but what I didn't see coming was the confrontation brewing between Walt and Jesse. Well played, Gilligan.



S5:E12 "Rabid Dog"

Walt with the gasoline - it's like he's spinning another one of his lies from two or three seasons ago. I'm sure Skyler knows he's lying, but at this point she knows better than to ask him for the truth. (Well, at least not in front of Junior). But why didn't Jesse burn the house down, like he was going to?

This is interesting. Everybody just assumes that Walt will eliminate the Jesse threat, but for once, he means to solve the problem without terminal violence. Even I could be accused of thinking Walt would off Jesse earlier in the season. But now we're dealing with a person close enough to Walt that his "moral judgment" (ha!) is kicking into gear. It's not that he'll kill anyone, it's just that there are few people who matter enough to him to warrant foregoing the "final solution". It's like, he's got a moral compass like everyone else, it's just tuned all the way down to "sociopath". It remains to be seen, however, how easily Jesse will flip into the "not sacred" camp as he continues to threaten Walt and his family. Or, if Walt can't make that jump, will that be the ultimate end of him? Is Jesse even capable of that? (Why did he change his mind about the house? Or did someone change it for him?).

"Walt's a bastard. Secret's out. We'll talk about it."

Oh my god! An alliance between Hank and Jesse? A match made in Hell! (Or, since this is an antihero story, and Walt's the protagonist, a match actually made in Heaven?).

It seems poignant that the camera focused on Hank buckling himself and Jesse in before driving away. Something about following the rules and doing the right thing, logic prevailing over emotion. Something like that.

Marie in therapy:

"There is no problem - no matter how difficult, or painful, or seemingly unsolvable - that violence won't make worse."
"I know. I...don't worry, I wouldn't hurt anybody. I just... It just feels good to think about it."

And that's why we're all watching this show, right? But I guess that's where we draw the line between good and evil.

One thing that's ironic is that early on in this show, Hank and Marie were the unlikable people, compared to Walt and Skyler. But they're the good ones - they're coming out on top in the end. Just goes to show, there's more important things than a person's charisma. Then again, the way that we're drawn to charisma...again, that's why we're watching this show, right?


Walt sits by the swimming pool, even at the hotel (nice hotel by the way). Did I mention how the swimming pool is almost it's own character in this show? I don't know if there's some symbolism to it, but even if not, I think that's a great detail that really fleshes out Walt's humanity (what little of it he has). I can totally relate to meditating near water. It has a calming influence.

"You think I came all this way just to let something as silly as lung cancer take me down? Not a chance."

Even though that's what I thought this show was all about at the start, I kinda feel like Walt has a point now. Can anything take him down?

As Jesse sits down to be interviewed on camera by Hank (and Gomez - I'm glad Hank's brought him into this, as I didn't like seeing him cut out, and Hank with no allies at the DEA), I want to believe that this will be good for him - that he'll work out some kind of deal or whatever.  But then I remember those Youtube videos I've seen about how it's NEVER in your personal interest to talk to a cop - even when you're innocent. And given how guilty Jesse is, and how crafty and slippery Walt is, Jesse's basically signing his own arrest warrant here if things don't work out the way Hank wants them to, or if Hank has a sudden change of heart about Jesse after learning about his involvement in Walt's misdeeds. (Although if ever his possession of a conscience could save his soul, this would be the time for it - I think that's something Hank could respond to, much as he's already predisposed to hating Jesse).

Once again, great investigative instinct, Hank. He's figured out that Jesse is Walt's weak spot. And not just because of the dirt Jesse has on him. This truly is the making of a great "the taking down of Walter White" story, provided things don't go the way Walt would like to see them go.

What is Jesse's plan? Oh shit, did Walt just put a hit out on Jesse? Well, that took almost a whole episode...



S5:E13 "To'hajiilee"

Hank and Gomez trick Huell to try and track down Walt's only remaining weakness - his money - leading to an epic showdown in the desert.

A living example of "moral relativity" is an ex-con hitman describing other people as "savages".

Walt puts out a hit on Jesse with Todd's uncle Jack, in exchange for agreeing to cook once more, in order to teach Todd to bring up the purity. He can't kill Jesse himself because he's too close to him. But I can totally see him taking out Todd's whole family if necessary. Maybe Todd, too - I don't know.

Oh god, Walt is using Brock to flush Jesse out. He's a madman!

In the desert - Walt realizes he's fucked, and finds out Jesse's working with Hank. What is he going to do now?


Surrender! Is this it?

No! You can NOT end the episode there, right in the middle of a shootout! It's terrible - I even said to myself, Jack's crew are gonna come anyway, and spring Walt, but then I got so lost in the moment - Hank finally arresting Walt - that when they showed up, it was just like, oh shit. Also, Hank's phone call with Marie had a strange poignancy to it that I couldn't quite place. I figured it must have been because Hank just closed the case that's been driving him mad for years, indicating that everything's going to be better in their relationship moving forward. But as soon as those trucks came around, I got this sinking feeling - Hank's not making it out of there alive. Damn.



S5:E14 "Ozymandias"

An eerie flashback to the first day, that emphasizes how much has changed since then.

To think that Walt would offer his entire fortune to Jack to let Hank live. I know he's "family", but Walt never even liked Hank that much. And this is his money we're talking about - the reason he did it all. I wonder if he's got something up his sleeve (he always does). Like, sure, let Jack take the money. As long as he gets out of this, he'll figure out a way to waste Jack and get the money back. Maybe he doesn't even have a plan yet, but is counting on his wits to figure it out later (he'd have good reason to).

"My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself."

Oh my god, this episode is just filled with bad feelings. It's not even cathartic. Just sad. Ugly. Yet I still love it.

Caged and tortured - this is not the ending I had in mind for Jesse... Although being shot execution style wasn't it either.

> Call for help.
> Take matters into your own hands.

Junior calls the cops on his dad. Walt rushes out with the baby. Skyler runs out into the street after them, helpless. This is the most haunting suburban scene I've watched since Halloween. My terse comments do not do it justice. "We're a family!"

And he's off, with a new identity. All that's left is the denouement - tying up loose ends, seeing the rest of these characters' ends.

I guess this season has been all about not just how Walt will be taken down - but how far he'll go before the end. (Which is what we've all been watching to see).

Surely, Walt's loose ends are going to be killing Jesse - but does he know for sure that Jack's gang kept him alive? He was willing to give himself up when Hank caught him, but now, even when he's lost everything - most of his money, and above all, his family (including his kids) - he's still in it for himself, apparently.



S5:E15 "Granite State"

Lol, I was just thinking, "I wonder if we'll see any more of Saul Goodman." And, sure enough, here he is. This should be interesting, seeing Walt as he is now, interacting with Saul, both of them on the lam.

"No matter how much you got, how can you turn your back on more?" - Todd's laconic wit.

Todd threatens Skyler (and the baby) to keep quiet about Lydia. I love how this show does scenes like this. It's like, we've seen what crime is like from the perspective of a million dramas and documentaries, and it's always these bad people we don't understand, framed in a certain way that we can separate ourselves from the danger. Here, it's like, this is just another part of the daily life of these people. It's fascinating.

I was really rooting for Jesse to escape that compound, but I guess at this stage - ever since the showdown in the desert - this show is done with feel good developments. It's all about soul-crushing devastation now, and Todd's encounter with Andrea (animals!) accomplishes that like a knife to the gut.


Walt holes up in a cabin in remote (and snowy) New Hampshire. (Why am I thinking of the Smoking Man, lol)? All he's worked for has turned to dust. A perfect representation of the previous episode's allusion to Ozymandias (which I also remember being referenced in The Watchmen) - the king of kings brought low. He can't even get the little (relatively speaking) money he has left to his family. It was all for naught. I guess, in the end, crime doesn't pay, after all. What will be his final move? And what will become of Jesse? What will happen in the final episode? I'm betting it'll hinge on a confrontation between Walt and Jesse.

I think one of the most fascinating things about this series is how it manages to make a villain sympathetic. Walter White is a human being. A despicable human being sometimes - for sure. But a human being nonetheless. Like, I was rooting for Hank to catch Walt (sooner or later), and Flynn had every right to react the way he did when Walt called him after going on the lam (great scene, by the way). But still, I sympathize with Walt because I understand why he did the things he did.

He still deserves to rot in hell - make no mistake about that. Understanding is not the same thing as condoning. That's something that I think a lot of people have trouble with (in the real world). It's like they have some superstition that if they "understand" the reasons why a person does horrible things, it's the same thing as excusing those things. I never understood how or why that conclusion should follow. I mean, shouldn't we try to understand why people do horrible things? Isn't that a better way to prevent and handle those bad things than willful blindness?

I strive to separate emotion from logic in these cases. People who do horrible things can still have something to contribute to society. Like, if a murderer donates to a puppy shelter, the fact that he donated to the puppy shelter doesn't mean that he shouldn't suffer the consequences of committing murder, and at the same time, the fact that he's a murderer doesn't mean that his charity toward puppies is "poisoned" in some way. (In the case of money, I completely understand not wanting to spend so-called "ill-gotten gains", but the point is conceptual - if a bad person does something good, that doesn't mean that the good thing isn't really good, especially when other, not bad people do it).



S5:E16 "Felina"

"If we're gonna go that way, you'll need a bigger knife."

Walt's plan to get the last of his money to his family via a veiled (and coerced) donation by the Schwartzes (of Gray Matter) is (characteristically) brilliant. And Walt's visit to their home is another one of this series' subtly haunting scenes, with Walt just kinda walking into the place (not even breaking in - just walking in) and acting like he owns it (as well as the lives of its inhabitants). Awesome bluff with the "snipers" - it totally had me going. Also, nice surprise seeing Badger and Skinny Pete one last time before the series ends.

Great job shooting Walt in the coffee shop that Lydia frequents. I swear, he was sitting right there, and I didn't notice him until he stood up! Well done.

Well, now we know who the poison was intended for. Walt's tying up loose ends, alright. And working on something big, too. He'll need it to take down Jack's group. I hope this blowout is going to be one last example of Walt's wizardry - like the trick with the fulminated mercury all the way back in the first season.

Walt visits Skyler first. I'm glad that the truth about Hank is being set straight once and for all. I really thought Walt had gone off the deep end when he made that call after running out with the baby, but Saul's explanation suggests that it was just a smart move to try and take some of the heat off of Skyler. As terrible a person as Walt may be, the family deserves to know that he genuinely didn't intend for Hank to be killed. Although some would say that the damage is done. It's certainly too late to turn back the clock.

And then Walt confesses: "I did it for me." This really is the end, isn't it? (Although, I suppose he has to say that, if he wants the family not to question the Schwartzes' gift when it comes, which is the only way he can get any of his money to them)...

And, the final showdown. Jesse strangles Todd (how things have changed since the first season). Todd was one of those odd characters, where I wanted to like him, but then he would do things that made me not like him. Kinda like Gus - except in the end, I guess the worst things Gus allegedly did, Gus didn't even really do. In Todd's case, I can't say I'm sad to see him go. He totally had it coming. As for Jack, I like how Jack's death mirrors Hank's death. Shot in mid-sentence. Then Walt gives Jesse one last mind fuck, but he prevails over Walt's psychological manipulations this time. Not that it warrants forgiveness, after everything that happened, but Walt did save Jesse's life, and gave him his freedom, in the end. Not saying Walt should run for saint or anything, just that...it is what it is.


And then Walt dies surrounded by what he truly loves - in the bowels of a meth lab. And it wasn't the cancer, but a bullet that killed him! I think the one enduring idea that I've taken away from the ending to this series is how we've been taken on this wild ride, and the purpose was to demonstrate, from a more or less sympathetic perspective, how a bad man came to discover his calling in life - being a drug kingpin ("I liked it. I was good at it."). And the fascinating part is the extent to which he's been portrayed sympathetically. No, we haven't always agreed with him, but as I explained above, we've been asked to consider the motivations for his behavior, and they've been largely understandable from the perspective of human nature. Does it mean we should let meth lords do their thing? No, not necessarily. (I mean, you could make an argument, but...).

I guess I just really respond to the whole idea of sympathizing with somebody misunderstood. People are so quick to judge and condemn. Again, not saying I condone Walt's behaviors, but is it really so bad to take a moment and try to see where people are coming from? If you're so afraid that realizing that "he was protecting his family" will make you feel like his actions were justified (up to and including murder), to the point that you'd rather not consider it and just focus myopically on the bad thing he did, ignoring the reasons for it, then I fear for your own moral compass. I fear for the moral compass of humanity.

Then again, if there are people like Walter White out there in the world, who can come to justify these behaviors in their own lives... I guess I just like to see the world as it really is, in shades of grey. If things are not so clear cut, I don't want to reduce everything to blacks and whites. I want to experience the full dynamic range of life. And, philosophically speaking, if murder really is bad, then I want to discover the correct reason for that, and not rely on the demonstrably shaky foundations of something nebulous like the concept of "judeo/christian principles".

All this is to say that this is one fucking fantastic television series. But as incredible as this show is, and as crazy as anyone would be to say "I don't want to have more new episodes of Breaking Bad to watch", I really appreciate a story that's not afraid to end, and I'm glad that Vince Gilligan learned from the mess that the X-Files developed into, not to carry the show beyond its welcome. You can't do things like kill Hank and break up Walt's family (for real) until you're in the end game, and those are incredible storytelling events. Otherwise, if you try to keep the show going as long as it's profitable, you end up holding off on those developments indefinitely, and the show becomes something it never intended at the outset.

So, sad as I am not to have any more new episodes of Breaking Bad to watch, I'm really glad it ended when it did. After all, it's such a great series that it's worth watching again. In fact, I'd love to go back and watch it all again with somebody who hasn't seen it yet, just to savor their reactions. Hopefully you've gotten a little piece of that here with these reviews. It's been a hell of a time!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Sloe Gin (2007)


1. Ball Peen Hammer
2. One Of These Days
3. Seagull
4. Dirt In My Pocket
5. Sloe Gin
6. Another Kind Of Love
7. Around The Bend
8. Black Night
9. Jelly Roll
10. Richmond
11. India


Kevin Shirley helped to mold Joe Bonamassa's sound, and hone his talent, but he also encouraged him to stretch out and experiment - which is good, and something that I think Joe liked to do anyway. Experiments are, by their very nature, hit or miss - and you can't know until you try. Also, diversifying your sound means two things: 1) some of the people who already liked the way you sound will be disappointed, and 2) other people who didn't particularly like the way you sounded will perk up their ears and start listening. So it's a double-edged sword, but I don't disparage Joe his musical experiments. And as far as experiments go, this album is a pretty safe one - featuring polished, commercial, more acoustic songs. But for me personally, it's too middle of the road. I'd rather listen to him doing what he does best (yes, again): hard rocking, soulful blues. I mean, it's like Neil Young performing with The Stray Gators. The music is pretty, and undeniably popular, but hell, give me Crazy Horse any day of the week!

Take One Of These Days as the first of many examples. After tackling Led Zeppelin on You & Me, I was ecstatic to learn that Joe had covered a song by one of my favorite lesser known rock bands from the '70s - Ten Years After. But, sadly, this is one of the few cases where one of Joe's classic rock covers does not improve on the original. Musically, it's very accomplished, but the performance lacks a certain raw energy that Alvin Lee delivered, that made the original so good. I'd say that's the flaw with this whole album - it's like that scene in the Johnny Cash biopic. These songs don't sound like they're being played as if somebody's life depended on it.

You know, it's ironic that this Ten Years After cover should turn up on this album, because I feel like it occupies a similar space as the album the original appeared on. A Space In Time is probably Ten Years After's biggest album (it contains probably the only song of theirs you've ever heard - I'd Love To Change The World - unless you've watched the Woodstock movie), yet I've always felt that it's not as strong an album as some of the ones that came before and after it. In Ten Years After's case, those would be Cricklewood Green and Rock & Roll Music To The World. For Joe, it's the albums that directly preceded and followed it (You & Me, and The Ballad of John Henry).

The album's one saving grace is its title track, an unlikely cover of a song originally recorded by actor/entertainer Tim Curry (yes, the man who was Lord Darkness in Legend, and also the "sweet transvestite" from The Rocky Horror Picture Show) - and what a saving grace it is. Even the tasteful piano/keyboard accompaniment serves the mood, rather than detracts from it (something that's hard to pull off in a rock/blues song). I would unflinchingly call it Joe's own "Stairway To Heaven", as it is a slow and soulful ballad that builds to an incredible guitar solo, and has become (at least up until recently) the anchor around which Joe's live concerts pivot. But I don't feel too bad about not listening to the album it hails from more often, because you can hear it on just about every live album Joe's put out since, and it's always quite good.

The rest of the album contains a combination of musically diverse "pretty" songs, and acoustic/electric hybrids (which are too electric for acoustic fans, and too acoustic for electric fans, so I'm not sure who they're designed to impress). In the first camp, there is the acoustic ballad Seagull - a Bad Company song, but you wouldn't know it - the album closing duo of Richmond, followed by the appropriately titled instrumental India, and the fairly boring Jelly Roll - it's a decent spot for Joe's singing, but it doesn't even feature the technical prowess that Joe's best acoustic songs have. In the second camp, there is Ball Peen Hammer - not as strong an opener as High Water Everywhere was, in my opinion - Dirt In My Pocket, which features the first hard rock riff on the album (and yet, is still half acoustic), and Another Kind Of Love - a John Mayall cover I like that I would call one of Joe's "junk food rockers".

Also featured is a re-recording (a studio first for Joe!) of Around The Bend, last heard on Had To Cry Today. Comparing the two versions is illustrative of the problem I have with this album. The new version displays a level of maturity and sophistication that is laudable. It's sparser, more gentle, and with subtler accompaniment. Joe's vocals have improved. But it's also softer, and though it represents an evolution for Joe as a musician, I'm not sure I like it better than the earlier version. After all, as rough as Joe was back on his debut album, it's still one of my favorites in his entire discography. Studio polish is nice - it's amazing what it can do sometimes - but the content is the thing, and sometimes the polish gets in the way, and becomes the story more than the story. It can really change the feel of a song - for better or worse.

Even Black Night - one of Joe's typical slow blues - has never made much of an impression on me. It's a breath of fresh air amongst all these acoustic numbers, but it lacks the energy and immediacy that makes these kinds of songs usually so good. I mean, compare it to Reconsider Baby. Joe wields more control over his talents on this record, but sometimes unbridled energy is exactly the thing you need. In time, Joe will learn how to produce controlled musical aggression (the title track on this album is a taste of what that can sound like) - like a martial artist practicing mindfulness in the midst of a spontaneous attack - but at this point, the genuine article is more compelling. Sloe Gin is undoubtedly the more polished and commercial-sounding record, but would it be absolutely terrible if I said I'd rather listen to So, It's Like That? I don't need complex arrangements, and I don't mind lovelorn clichés - all I need is a screaming rock and roll guitar.

Rating: 💿 Rare Spin

Monday, September 19, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 5 (Part 1)

Sad but true story: when I started this season, I had planned to review each episode separately (kind of like I did with The X-Files), since I had become thoroughly entrenched enough in the series to that point. But, after getting as much as the first three episode reviews polished and ready to post (I wanted to get a few done first so I knew I'd be able to commit to the format), Blogger up and ate them without warning, leaving me with nothing but the raw notes I'd typed up in Notepad. It nearly crushed my spirit. But I trudged on. And now I'll just have to do this last review like I did the past four seasons...

Spoiler Warning: This post is going to discuss - and therefore contain major spoilers from - the first half of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad. Reader discretion is advised. :-p



"I won."

S5:E1 "Live Free or Die"

In the season five premiere, we pick up where the last season left off - with Walt gloating over his victory in the face off with drug kingpin Gustavo Fring. But not before being treated to a tantalizing flash forward in which Walt appears to be on the run, and gearing up for a violent confrontation. Also, Jesse hatches a harebrained scheme involving a gigantic "magnet bomb" that's just crazy enough to work.

Walt is definitely getting power drunk. He's threatening Saul, scaring Skyler. I feel like he's finally gone over the deep end. There's no turning back now (psychologically - seeing as Walt's been screwed since the first season). I imagine he's just on a downward spiral now, and it's only a matter of time before things get out of control - even for him. Although, the scene we saw at the beginning of the episode makes you wonder. Will Walt get out of this in the end? Go on the run? Use Saul's contact to start a new life? Where is his family? Or was that not the final end of this story? I guess time will tell.

I haven't watched some of these other "antihero" shows that are popular - like, I don't know, The Sopranos, or whatever. But while I'm definitely seeing Walt finally turning into more of a villain - the sort of guy who gets what he wants, and has no qualms about stepping on people's toes (to put it so lightly as to be offensive) to do it - what's fascinating about him is that, even if he may not be a clone of the average Joe who lives on your street, he still feels normal-ish, in terms of where he's coming from. The high school teacher with a suburban family. He didn't grow up in a gang, or a mafia family, or even amidst a drug culture, like Jesse presumably surrounded himself with. He's no "Godfather". He was just this mild-mannered 9-to-5er, like so many of the rest of us, and now he's this...force of nature. But again, that's what makes this series so original, and so intriguing.



S5:E2 "Madrigal"

This episode's opening segment is like something straight out of The X-Files - with an international business executive defibrillating himself on the toilet. It catches your attention, and keeps you guessing. Gilligan and his team definitely learned a few tricks working on The X-Files.

Clearly, Walt's not even thinking about hanging up his hat now. Not that that's really surprising - but there was a time once when he would have relished the perfect opportunity to get out. He's definitely over the deep end now, headed for disaster. Sooner or later.

With all this international intrigue, I feel like I'm watching a James Bond movie, but it's always fun to see Mike at work. He's such a down to earth guy. His police interview was very tense - he knows just how to deal with the cops. It's no wonder he sees that Walt is (to quote Jose Chung from that other series) a ticking time bomb of insanity. But I guess all of this is pushing Mike into needing money so he'll join up against his better instincts with Walt and Jesse (by this point, Walt gets what he wants - one way or another). What a sad commentary on society that people can so easily go into debt - even when they're rich - that they'll resort to such dangerous get-rich-quick schemes as manufacturing illegal drugs. It makes you wonder what the point of honest labor is, beyond some nebulous concept of "virtue". Other than peace of mind, and not always having to look over your shoulder, I guess.

I'm surprised Saul is still dealing with Walt. He's smart enough to know that Walt's bad news. But then, I guess, if Walt's got him in his clutches, there's nowhere for him to go...

There's a great scene in this episode where Hank's superior is discussing Fring's two-faced deception - how he would schmooze with the DEA, and all the while he had this secret double life. You can almost see it through Hank's eyes, the wheels turning in his head. Is he starting to suspect Walt now?

Have to say, I love that Jesse referred to the RV as the "crystal ship". Awesome.

What a haunting ending, with Walt and Skyler in bed. And what a change from season 1. Walt has his family, but he's basically destroyed it, along with his own soul. Skyler is terrified. She looks like she wants to be anywhere else but in that bed, but she's got none of the spunk from before. She has no leg left to stand on, after what happened to Ted. She's like a wounded animal. And Walt - he's like some shadowy beast, sniffing and pawing over his prey. It's not even sexual, but purely a dominance thing. (I almost wouldn't be surprised if he started urinating on her to mark his territory). He's got no humanity left at all, it seems. The transformation we've seen in this series is so fascinating, and it's really feeling like it's going too far. Like the end is growing near. How have we gone this many years as a society and never crafted any media that ever depicted the birth of a sociopath so convincingly before?

(On that note, it's interesting to go back and think about Walt's little "outbursts" in the first season. At first it was cathartic - striking back at the assholes you encounter in day to day life. Then it started getting a little extreme. And now, looking back, you can see it for what it really was - sociopathic tendencies. By the end, Walt doesn't like a guy - he just kills him).



S5:E3 "Hazard Pay"

Mike's in the hot seat, trying to keep the ship afloat. Walt moves back into his house, to Skyler's chagrin (he's got the balls back in this relationship, although now it's a dysfunctional one). And the new team hunts for a new lab.

I gotta say, the exterminator setup is an ingenious idea. If it weren't so damn illegal, it might even work. But I'm thinking right now that there are way too many moving parts (literally!). Something's bound to fall through. And right now, what they need is an airtight case. In other words, it looks like they're building up a new operation, but I can't help feeling like it's just a setup for disaster. (Of course, knowing that the series is coming to an end probably contributes to that, as well),

Skinny Pete is surprisingly good at piano!

Regarding Jesse's relationship with Andrea, why would Walt pump Jesse's head full of those ideas about trust and honesty and whatnot? Does he not realize that Jesse has a conscience? Does he want Jesse to blab about his business to his girlfriend? Maybe he thinks it will cause Andrea to want to leave him. Why does Walt not want Jesse to be happy? Is he really that petty? Or is it just simply that he's completely uncomfortable being reminded of what he did to Brock (that scene on the couch - so much unspoken subtext...), that he wants to sabotage Jesse's relationship (and what a suave way to do it - this guy's a master sociopath), to get them as far away from him as possible, no matter the emotional cost to Jesse? You know what, knowing Walter White, that sounds the most likely.


"Listen, Walter. Just because you shot Jesse James, don't make you Jesse James."

Walt discusses his re-interpretation of Gus' killing Victor in the lab (with the box cutter) with Jesse, subtly hinting that he might do something to Mike for "taking liberties" with their money. Jesse's been like a blind puppy dog for most of this series, loyally following Walt around. Is he finally getting a sense of the man's true nature? I'm kinda feeling like Walt's gonna be the one to screw himself over in the end. No weak link - it's like Scarface, the movie he was watching with Walter, Jr. ("Everyone dies in this movie, don't they" - is that foreshadowing?). Drunk on power, completely detached from reality, believing in his own legend, not even conscious enough to realize when the game's up...



S5:E4 "Fifty-One"

"What are you waiting for?"
"For the cancer to come back."

You and me both, Sky. (Skyler's really starting to lose it, walking into the pool fully dressed. Can't blame her though - she's living with a madman).

Walt's getting too fancy with these cars. What happened to being discreet? The way he put that hat on in front of Walt, Jr. - I almost get the feeling that he's been in this long enough, and he's becoming more confident now about what he's doing - that he's getting tired of hiding. He wants the world (or at least his family and friends) to know who he is. But the tricky thing about "coming out" is that it can have real, serious consequences. Especially when you're coming out as something extremely illegal. Still, I can't deny that there's an appeal there in coming clean - not in the sense of giving it up and admitting your fault, but saying, as the Marquis de Sade once did, "either kill me or take me as I am, for I shall never change."

Leave it to Hank to notice those mismatched shoes. A genius investigator, I say.

About this idea re: putting the kids in "a new environment". It's amazing how well written this show is, that it speaks so well to humanity. I think it's safe to assume that Skyler doesn't want Walt influencing the kids, because he's obviously become a bad influence. At the same time, I can sympathize with Walt, because I know what it feels like for somebody to not want you influencing their kids, while at the same time you think you'd be a better influence than the alternative. I can just see that if I were in Walt's position, and it were my kids, how this could turn into a majorly serious argument. Even monsters have a sense of pride and dignity.

Walt and Skyler are becoming enemies. They've been at odds for a large part of this series, but there was always the assumption of a bond between them, however fraught. But now she's like a trapped animal, trying to escape the lion's den. Walt is being surprisingly civil to her for now, but what will it take before he snaps and attacks her, too? Is the reason he's alone in the season opening flash-forward because he has no family left? Whether it's because he's driven them away - or worse? I kinda feel like if Walt, Jr. ever loses his illusion of respect for his father, that might just be the last straw that strips the last ounce of humanity from Walt. How can you justify your madness in terms of protecting your family when there's no family left to protect?



S5:E5 "Dead Freight"

"I'm not your wife; I'm your hostage."

Walt bugs Hank's computer, right there in the offices of the DEA. God, he's got guts.

"Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head." Mike with his one liners.

Lol, Lydia suggests train robbery - literally! Mike and Walt are bickering about the train heist, and Jesse is sitting there coming up with ideas - he's really coming into his own. I'll bet this'll be even better than the magnet idea! (It's like a train heist version of Indiana Jones!).

"There are two kinds of heists. Those where the guys get away with it. And those that leave witnesses." Oh god, what horrible foreshadowing... Talk about a hollow victory - what a way to turn success into utter devastation. When shit like this happens, it really makes you wonder what's the point. Is it really worth it? How one chooses to proceed after a tragedy like this is what separates the men from the monsters.




S5:E6 "Buyout"

Wow, I almost thought Skyler was going to blab to Marie there. That would have been the end of it. It's not smart, but when you're desperate, sometimes you become self-destructive, or else you begin to prioritize your emotional wellbeing over the longterm consequences of living a terrible lie. Psychologically, I wanted Skyler to come clean. I know how good that can feel.

Getting back to the fallout from the train heist - I wonder if this is going to be the straw... wait, that's a bad analogy. I wonder if this is going to finally be what breaks Jesse's resolve and blind loyalty to Walt. The murder of that innocent boy to protect their secret enterprise - it's not pleasant at all, but it's such a fascinating conundrum to consider. As the conscience in this story, Jesse has become a more and more interesting character, especially since the Gale incident, and the subsequent reaction to his rehab therapy group. I once had a dream where I killed someone, and got away with it. But the worst part of it - the part that haunted me long after I woke up - was the hollow feeling that comes from knowing that I'd been responsible for something so horrible, so unconscionable. I mean, like, I can sympathize to a point. Even having been involved in something like this, moving forward like Walt wants to do doesn't necessarily mean condoning the collateral damage. A person like Jesse can believe in his heart that what he's doing is wrong, yet still go on, because that's just your basic survival instinct. And I guess we consider (and probably rightfully so) a person to be truly capable of rehabilitation if they seek restitution for their wrongs, which could only occur if Jesse confessed, forgoing his own survival instinct to right the wrong he is at least partly responsible for committing. But I guess that can be a process, too. And it's incredible, but I've never before seen any kind of fictional media - book, movie, or otherwise - that has explored these themes in such a visceral, believable fashion. I don't know, maybe it's me - maybe you have to have certain life experiences to respond to certain things like this in a certain way, and it's only now that I've become receptive to that. But regardless, this series has done an amazing job of it.

There's a perfectly creepy scene in this episode - Jesse is agonizing over the kid's death, and Walt is trying to cheer him up, by giving him the rest of the day off. And Jesse's on his way out the door, and Walt's in the lab whistling while he works - like he's actually in a good mood after all this has happened! It's horrifying in such a subtle way.

And again, I say that Aaron Paul is a great actor in this series. Maybe he wears his emotions on his sleeve a little bit, but when he said "I'm out", I could see the heartbreak on his face (not wanting to disappoint Walt - or was that fear?).

"Billions - with a 'b'." Good to hear about Gray Matter again. "I'm in the empire business." What a megalomaniac! That explains why Walt is so insistent on keeping the business, though - it's all he has left, now that his family has been shattered, and his kids taken away from him. Also, most awkward dinner ever - with Jesse just sitting there, caught in the middle of this power play between husband and wife...

This is kind of a technical aside, but this show is really well lit - with dark shadows in just the right places. And of course, the brilliant, bright, desert scenes. Light and shade, baby.

"Everybody wins." (Yeah, we'll see about that).



S5:E7 "Say My Name"

There's so much to analyze and discuss about this series, but what's being presented to you is often so haunting, and emotionally affecting, that you're frequently left speechless, with no words to describe what's going on in front of you. In this episode, Walt makes a new distribution deal with his competitor, now that Mike is retiring (that meeting - pure ego). I'll be sad to see Mike go...

Jesse also leaves the cook, despite Walt's sincere protests. (Does he care more about him as a friend, or a manipulable worker? Doesn't take him long to start molding Todd in his image, although I want to say that Jesse is special - you can't just replace him with any lowlife slacker).

Sigh. I knew Walt was gonna shoot Mike - I mean, it was obvious. What's surprising is that Mike didn't see it coming. He knew Walter was a ticking time bomb. He shoulda seen it coming...




S5:E8 "Gliding Over All"

Walt makes a distribution deal with Lydia, and choreographs the killing of nine potential snitches in prison (with help from Todd's uncle Jack).

This is just another one of those great, understated moments in this series - when Hank comes home agonizing over how stressful it is to "chase monsters", unknowingly griping to the very monster he's chasing, while that monster just sits there, completely unaffected emotionally. This is villainy - not dark capes and evil, exaggerated laughs.

Yep, I'm never going to be able to listen to Crystal Blue Persuasion the same way again...

All this work Walt has to go to in order to put together his new business - it really makes you appreciate the whole enclosed system Gus had had set up, before Walt had to come along and raze it to the ground.

"How big does this pile have to be?"

Walt visits Jesse at home. It's sweet to hear them reminiscing about their old RV. I'm feeling kind of nostalgic too, knowing that this series is heading towards its end. Of course, you can't turn back the clock. Reminds me of the sappy mood in Vince Gilligan's penultimate episode of the X-Files, Sunshine Days - although less cheesy and saccharine here, thankfully. I'm a little bit relieved, though. I was beginning to think that Walt would end up finding some reason to kill Jesse (as I'm sure that's what Jesse was starting to suspect). I'm glad he's not so far gone that he can't remember how much he's actually enjoyed Jesse's "friendship". If you can call it that, given how he's treated him all this time. But not everybody is good at showing their feelings.

I swear, my heart dropped into my stomach when the camera showed the bag just on the periphery of the frame, after Walt told Jesse he'd left him something. For a second I thought it would be Mike's dead body, as one last "fuck you" to Jesse for quitting the business. I know, that wouldn't make any kind of sense (gotta keep those loose ends tied up), but sadly, it's not so far outside the realm of lunacy that I couldn't be absolutely certain that Walt wouldn't do it. I mean, think of all the things he's done to Jesse. Gale, Brock...

Come on, Walt can't possibly be "out". Is he going to start lying to Skyler again now? What about his deal with Declan? With Lydia? Is this for real?

And, the backyard BBQ is back to the way it was before. Such a difference from that time a few episodes back, when Skyler walked into the pool. There was so much dysfunction going on then, it was like night and day from the old family get-togethers from earlier seasons (although, there were times - like with Walter, Jr. and the beer). But now it's like old times again. What's the catch, I'm wondering? You can't get out that cleanly... If nothing else, the psychology can't just snap back to a period of innocence. They've done too much, seen too much, to ever truly be the same again.

And, there it is. What a way for Hank to finally figure it out. Sitting on the crapper (that's so Breaking Bad). What a great scene, though. It's like, "oh, okay, we're going to watch Hank take a crap now. I'm not sure what the point of this is, but it's not like it's the first time on this seri--- oh, oh shit, the Walt Whitman book!" The shit is about to hit the fan, folks. We're in the home stretch now! And just when Walt thought he was out...

A literal "oh, shit!" moment.

To be concluded!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Tomb Raider (2013)

I had fun playing Tomb Raider Anniversary almost a decade ago (where does the time go?), but despite being a remake, it didn't capture the magic of the original game (the one that started it all). And so, when this new-fangled reboot of the series came out a few years ago, I was mildly intrigued, but not so excited about the modern direction in which the series was heading that I had to run out and buy it. But now that my new exercise regime has given me regular time to play console games (and what an excuse - it keeps me in shape!), the likes of which I haven't had since before my college days - since the interactive nature of a video game distracts me from the monotony of walking on a treadmill much more effectively than the passive experience of watching a movie or TV show - I've made a point to play it. And here's what I think of it:

It was a fun game. But it doesn't really feel like a Tomb Raider game. A lot of that can be forgiven by the fact that this is an origin story - Lara Croft's first real adventure, before she became the badass we know her as now - but it doesn't really justify this game not simply being called Shipwreck Survivor (starring a Katniss clone with her signature bow and arrow - although, I have to admit, I may have squealed a little bit towards the end when (spoiler!) Lara dual-wielded pistols for the first time), unless or until there's a sequel (and there better be some pyramids!).

As a reboot of the series, this game feels, environmentally, like the Peru levels of the first game (albeit less cavey and more outdoorsy), with a little bit of Natla's Mines thrown in for good measure. But my biggest complaint is that it's only about 10% Tomb Raider. The only actual tombs in the game are literally optional to explore, and are all very samey vertical chambers with some mildly challenging obstacle to surmount. I swear to god, at one point, Lara actually says "I hate tombs" - unironically!

The rest of the game is about 15% Die Hard with button presses - oh, how I loathe the "quick time event" philosophy of modern gameplay. It's ironic, because in the days of Metal Gear Solid, I lauded this new cinematic approach to video gaming, but it's not much fun when you're basically watching a movie, except that you have to press a particular button at a particular point to get to the next scene (and god forbid you should screw it up, and have to rewind the scene and watch it ten more times before moving on).

The remaining 75% of the game is basically Call of Duty or Counterstrike or whatever war games the kids are playing these days (Borderlands? I dunno). Like I said, it was a fun game, but if I had wanted to play a war game, I would have bought a war game. This game is at its best when the world opens up and actually allows you to explore it (a little bit). The way you can hunt for relics (even if they're mostly not that interesting) and documents and salvage that you can use to upgrade your weapons is great. The sequel should have more of that, and less "kill this army of mercenaries (again)".

I'm happy to say that the level design has improved since Tomb Raider Anniversary, but it still has yet to evoke the sandbox appeal of the original Tomb Raider from 1996, where you could climb on everything, and finding the path from point A to point B was legitimately thrilling, and not an exercise in following visual breadcrumbs (emphasized further by your "survival instincts", however helpful they may be). The fact that you are following a scripted path is disguised a little bit better by the impressive graphics, but the effect on the gameplay is pretty much the same.

There is potential here for another winning entry in the Tomb Raider franchise, but the developers will have to iron out some issues first. They've crafted a moving story about the birth of a young explorer, who finds confidence in herself while unraveling the truth behind a Japanese legend about a Sun Queen who was rumored to have been able to control the weather. But there is room to improve, as I think I would prefer a game with more focus on the gameplay than the cinematics. And those of us who appreciated the fact that Lara Croft was simultaneously a sex symbol and a role model for female empowerment are going to have to get used to a less caricatured and more humanized Lara (nevertheless well cast). For better or worse.

---

That's the end of the review. I'm going to finish up with a note on the controversy I remember this game stirring up when it came out. I should probably just let this be, as it's old news by now, but since I never got to have my say...

I remember when this game came out, there was an uproar in the gaming world over a scene where Lara is subjected to "attempted rape". I suspected that it was PC bullshit at the time, and now having played the game, I'm even more confident of that opinion. It's possible that they toned down the scene after the bad publicity, but I can't imagine any reason why it would have been anything like people complained about in the first place. With all the brutal violence that Lara is subjected to in this game (seriously, it's pretty graphic), it's actually offensive that anyone would single out one tiny scene where a shipwrecked savage who is clearly a Bad Guy puts a hand on Lara's thigh in the midst of combat - and that is absolutely as far as it goes. Considering that this is also the scene that immediately develops Lara's motivation for taking her first (of hundreds in this game) human life, feminists should be rallying around this scene, not criticizing it. Of all the things the developers could do to justify their heroine becoming a murderer, they chose (minor) sexual harassment.

And to anyone who thinks it's "insensitive" to put a female character in a video game through this kind of "abuse" - the tagline for this game is "a survivor is born". Tell me why we can create fictional media depicting the birth of a survivor through such natural and man-made hardships as being washed ashore a remote island and having to fend off wild animals and anomalous weather patterns while climbing a mountain (and falling back down the other side), as a literal army of savage, gun-toting mercenaries and supernatural ogres put out all the stops to try to murder and torture said survivor, but we can't depict her being the target of unwanted sexual advances? I'm sorry, but the "Dragon's Triangle" is most decidedly not a "safe space". Tell me that political correctness hasn't gone too far...

Friday, September 2, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - You & Me (2006)


1. High Water Everywhere
2. Bridge To Better Days
3. Asking Around For You
4. So Many Roads
5. I Don't Believe
6. Tamp Em Up Solid
7. Django
8. Tea For One
9. Palm Trees Helicopters And Gasoline
10. Your Funeral And My Trial
11. Torn Down


With his "power trio" days behind him (bidding a fond farewell to Eric Czar and Kenny Kramme), You & Me is undeniably a turning point in Joe's career - marking the beginning of a lucrative creative partnership between Joe Bonamassa and record producer Kevin Shirley (which is still going strong ten years later). I'd personally call this Joe's breakout album - it's his first record that sounds more like an "album" than just a collection of songs (notwithstanding the blues concept of Blues Deluxe, and the sonic consistency of A New Day Yesterday), representing a maturity and sophistication not heard before - as Joe audibly wields more control over both his singing and his guitar playing. This is the first album on which Joe's original (and co-written) material begins to rival (not surpass just yet - if So Many Roads and Tea For One have anything to say about it - but rival) his legendary covers. It's also the first of only two studio albums (as of 2016) not named for one of its tracks, although it could easily have been called Bridge To Better Days (except insofar as that would do an injustice to three of the four albums that preceded it).

The first half of You & Me practically plays like a greatest hits album, opening with the blues groove of High Water Everywhere, evoking the legendary floods of the Mississippi delta, then kicking into the phenomenal and inspirational Bridge To Better Days, with its infectious main riff, followed by Joe's best and sweetest ballad yet, which makes tasteful use of its symphonic accompaniment, Asking Around For You ("if I ever get to Heaven, the first thing that I'll do, is tap an angel on the shoulder, and I'll be asking around for you"), with So Many Roads on cleanup. That last song is credited as an Otis Rush cover, but given Joe's familiarity with the British blues, I like to believe he had John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in mind at the time, who recorded this song (and another that turns up on this album - Your Funeral And My Trial) with Peter Green on guitar. Regardless, whether by way of John Mayall and Peter Green, or Otis Rush (and you can't go wrong either way), So Many Roads is one of Joe's best slow blues covers, and one of his first in a long line of songs about trains.

The album mellows out a little bit at this point - but we haven't even gotten to the best song yet! I Don't Believe is another rollicking rocker, although it plays on a riff that I think has been used to better effect in some of Joe's later songs. Tamp Em Up Solid (credited to Ry Cooder) is an acoustic piece with a bit of a sparse, "church revival" kind of sound, that shows off Joe's melodic range as a singer, and Django (as in jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt) is a sublime and roomy electric instrumental that I've been trained to expect as the opener to another song - usually one of Joe's live epics, such as Mountain Time or Just Got Paid - as heard in concerts from Joe's middle period. Both serve as a nice foil to much of the heavier material on this album (and Joe's discography in general). Then we come to Joe's classic rock cover du jour (or album), which is an ambitious take on one of rock royalty's lesser sung gems, the slow blues of Led Zeppelin's Tea For One. It's a perfect fit, and with guest vocalist Doug Henthorn taking over the singing, Joe does an incredible job evoking the sound and feeling of Jimmy Page's liquid leads. As a huge fan of the band, I rate it one of the finest Zeppelin covers I've heard.

Finishing up the album is a trio of tracks that each carry their weight, even if they don't earn themselves a place on any of my greatest hits discs. Palm Trees Helicopters And Gasoline (I'm thinking that must be some kind of reference to the Vietnam War?) is this album's acoustic showpiece - as well as its instrumental filler with a funny name. Your Funeral And My Trial (a song credited to Sonny Boy Williamson) is one of those "junk food rockers" - short, simple, but oh so satisfying, with a searing guitar solo. Nobody makes filler that tastes so good like Joe Bonamassa. Finally, Torn Down (not to be confused with Freddie King's I'm Tore Down, which was also covered by Eric Clapton) starts off with a lot of promise, but loses a little of its swagger in the breakdown - which is really a shame, because it has the makings of being an even better song. Even so, it's a strong finish to a strong album by a burgeoning artist who had nowhere to go but up.

Rating: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Had To Cry Today (2004)


1. Never Make Your Move Too Soon
2. Travellin' South
3. Junction 61
4. Reconsider Baby
5. Around The Bend
6. Revenge Of The 10 Gallon Hat
7. When She Dances
8. Had To Cry Today
9. The River
10. When The Sun Goes Down
11. Faux Mantini


Although Joe's previous album distinguishes itself as "the blues album" (not that that doesn't describe over half his discography!), I like to think of this as Blues Deluxe 2. The balance is tipped more towards original songs than blues covers this time, but there are a lot of similarities that can be drawn between these two albums (starting with the fact that they both open with a B.B. King cover - which I think is pretty cool), and they seem to fit into the same more or less indistinguishable groove in my mind. Which is not a bad thing - Blues Deluxe was a good album, and so too is Had To Cry Today. Both albums were named for their British blues rock covers; this album venerates another of Joe's biggest influences - Eric Clapton, via the short-lived supergroup Blind Faith. By direct comparison, Had To Cry Today may not cook as hot as Blues Deluxe, but it's a great rock n roll jam, and still one of the standout tracks on this album, as well as among Joe's early period classic rock covers.

And the praise doesn't stop there. I already mentioned The River in my last review, which Joe would pair up with Burning Hell in concerts around this time - this was, for me, one of the highlights of Joe's early live shows. The River starts out with a quiet acoustic part, before breaking out into full electric mode, complete with slide guitar and harmonica (think Led Zeppelin's When The Levee Breaks). And then there's Reconsider Baby, a searing cover of a slow blues by Lowell Fulson, also featuring another great vocal performance by Joe. I'm surprised this track hasn't gotten more attention - it's always been one of my early favorites from Joe's discography. It's the first song in Joe's catalogue that really sounds "modern" to my ears (from this point forward, the music begins to sound more and more like the Joe I know from his more contemporary material). He's put out more than his fair share of guitar-heavy slow blues (which is alright by me, as that's my favorite kind of blues), and it may be that it gets to a point later on when there are too many to keep track of, but at this point, this song stands out like a beacon on the album, as a testament to the depth of emotion that fuels the blues in its finest moments.

Continuing with the comparisons to Blues Deluxe, Around The Bend seems to follow in the footsteps of I Don't Live Anywhere, with another statement on Joe's roadbound lifestyle ("I'll go down any road there is, to see what's around the bend"). And Faux Mantini could well be the spiritual successor to Woke Up Dreaming, falling firmly in the camp that features fancy acoustic fretwork. When She Dances is a sweet ballad ("when she dances, I see where my only chance is") that fashions itself as the Wonderful Tonight of Joe's catalogue (minus the arguably overrated popularity that the Clapton track courts), and reminds me of Neil Young's When You Dance You Can Really Love (thematically, if not strictly musically). Travellin' South (another Albert Collins cover) is a rollicking rocker, Revenge of the 10 Gallon Hat (with its almost country flavor) would seem to pioneer Joe's habit of recording musically interesting (yet arguably filler) tracks with goofy names, and the upbeat, mostly acoustic When The Sun Goes Down keeps the slide guitar and harmonica of The River going for just a little bit longer. All of these tracks come together to create an enjoyable listening experience, crafted by an artist who was - as history would show - on the verge of entering a new phase of his career.

Rating: 💿💿 Occasional Spin